Granite Gargoyle

There's a famous writing technique called the iceberg theory. It states that the writer should only describe surface elements of a story while avoiding explicit discussion on any underlying themes. Context and character motivations could be skipped altogether; it's up to the reader to fill in the blanks. 

The technique was conceived by Ernest Hemingway in the early 1920s. He theorized that he could omit any part of a story - even the ending - and the omitted part would strengthen the story as a whole.  

Hemingway believed the deeper meaning of a story should not be evident on the surface. And a lot readers picked up on his ideas. I read a review recently where some literary scholar argued it would be easier to name contemporary fiction writers that weren't influence by Hemingway than to name those who were. And, I mean, formalizing the idea of having the reader create the context of a story is brilliant.

Among the most popular examples of the technique we have Hemingway's "flash fiction" stories; stories only a few words long that hint at a much larger world beneath. Perhaps the most famous one commonly attributed to Hemingway is "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

To tell a story in just a few words takes precision. But if you do it well, and manage to get the reader to ponder below the tip of that iceberg, you could really form a connection. The readers are creating a big part of the story themselves after all, building up a larger world within their imagination. 

When it comes to world building using fantasy flash fiction, few things have had greater impact on the genre than the original Magic: the Gathering release. The whole fantasy card game thing was new and unexplored, but the scattered flavor texts on cards gave us so much to conjure up below the surface. "Shores of Imagination" indeed.

  • "Some of the other guys dared me to touch it, but I knew it weren't no ordinary hunk o' rock." - Norin the Wary
  • Just as the evil ones approached to slay Justina, she cast a great spell, imbuing her weapons with her own life force. Thus she fulfilled the prophecy: “In the death of your savior will you find salvation.”
  • “This ‘standing windstorm' can hold us off indefinitely? Ridiculous!” Saying nothing, she put a pinch of salt on the table. With a bang she clapped her hands, and the salt disappeared, blown away.
  • Foolishly, Najib retreated to his castle at El-Abar; the next morning he was dead. In just one night, the dwarven forces had reduced the mighty walls to mere rubble.
  • The only sound was the gentle clicking of the Faeries' wings. Then those intruders who were still standing turned and fled. One thing was certain: they didn't think the Scryb were very funny anymore. 

Maybe you recognize these stories, or maybe you've played with the cards for years without considering their flavor text. Regardless, back in the day, no fantasy flash fiction from The Gathering got my juices flowing quite like the one on Granite Gargoyle.

“While most overworlders fortunately don't realize this, Gargoyles can be most delicious, providing you have the appropriate tools to carve them.” —The Underworld Cookbook, by Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar.

What is The Underworld, and why do they have a cookbook? And what kind of strange character could be named something as wild as Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar? One can only imagine...

Well, at least one could only imagine up until June 1996, when the anthology collection Distant Planes was published by Harper Prism.

One of the stories in Distant Planes is Chef's Kiss by Sonia Orin Lyris. In it we learn that Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar was a female wizard who at one point summoned a Lord of the Pit named Vincent. Unable to control it and eventually running out of creatures to sacrifice, to avoid getting eaten she enters his service as a chef in the Underworld. She agrees to serve him for seven years and seven days, providing a new and interesting meal every day lest she herself gets eaten. During her service, she writes The Underworld Cookbook and has 20 copies made. Eventually her obligations are fulfilled and she returns to the Overworld, only to find herself hunted by the creatures she described as delicious in her book.

While the story arguably answers some questions no one was really asking, it is still a fun read. And for the truly deep nerds, we might find additional humor in the fact that all the creatures she prepares exists as printed Magic cards except one; the Throat Wolf. That is commitment to a bit.

After the short story in 1996, Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar stayed in the deep underground until the mid 2000s, when she was introduced to the silver border crowd.

At this point it seemed like the character was destined to be a private joke of sorts in the Underworld. However, a couple of years later she returned to black border flavor text in the nostalgia-driven Time Spiral expansion, alongside a not-so-subtle re-imagining of Granite Gargoyle.

I remember first seeing that flavor text 15 years ago and chuckling. Sure, the iceberg may not stretch as deep after Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar's short story got published back in '96, but there's still a lot going on in the mind's eye regarding her and her cookbook. We're still hanging out on the shores of imagination here. But I think they kinda broke the spell earlier this year with Modern Horizons 2.

Is it still fan service when a huge chunk of the fans that get it don't really see it as a service? Like, stop melting my icebergs! Even though I was one of seven people who could pronounce Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar's name a year ago, I didn't really need her to get an explicit card. Some well executed flavor text would have sufficed well to get me to buy a box of MH2 for nostalgic reasons. Speaking of.

This is more like it.

Now Marble Gargoyle is an hommage done right in my book. Even got classic art from original Gathering master Drew Tucker. I much appreciate what he did here, and the subtle references to Christopher Rush's original. The now white colored gargoyle breaks away from the red in the background. 

And that color shift makes a lot of sense. Even back in Alpha, white was the color of toughness boosting. Red boosted power, not toughness.

So how come Granite Gargoyle was blessed with that strange ability? Well, if we go down the rabbit hole, we'll find that things are even weirder than they appear on first glance. This is what Granite Gargoyle looked like during playtesting:

Huh. That is a 2/2 flier for three mana (one of which must be red) with protection from blue. Nothing here about the off-color toughness pumping. And while the playtest card has comparable power level to the eventually printed Granite Gargoyle, removing blue color hosing in favor of fat pants created some strange cracks in The Gathering's color synergies. See, apart from Circles of Protection and Wards, each color in the original gathering has a few cards that "hose" (or are particularly potent against) their two enemy colors. These are generally symmetrically distributed across the colors. E.g. red doesn't like white, so red has Flashfires. White on their hand then has Conversion. Red and blue are enemies, and at common they have Red Elemental Blast and Blue Elemental Blast. Then at rare blue has Volcanic Eruption, and red has... nothing? One can theorize that Granite Gargoyle was intended to be the counterweight to Volcanic Eruption, but was changed for some conspicuous reason. Maybe by the same guy that pushed Lord of Atlantis to be one mana cheaper than Goblin King. Blue Magic had some serious patrons back in 92/93. The plot appears thick.

Ah, blue mass land destruction, direct damage, and creature sweeper all in one. Classic blue.

All that conspiracy aside, how good did the printed version of Granite Gargoyle end up being around the kitchen tables? I'd say very good. Like very, very good. Like getting-discontinued-from-the-game-for-being-too-good good. The card became the actual poster boy for the term "strictly better". Let's read a bit in The Duelist #5.

Good ol' physical media.

In this magazine, we find an article where WotC discuss their reasoning for discontinuing cards in general, with a focus on 4th Edition in particular.

Zoom and enhance.

Now, I still stand firmly behind the fact that 4th Edition was selected using wooden die and a glass of brackwater. That said, WotC's general arguments in this article are still something they tried to adhere to. And here we find the first written reference I've seen to "strictly better".

While I don't really have a problem with the sentiment that "Granite Gargoyle was clearly underpriced", I would question the idea that Gray Ogre "has about the right cost".

You wanna hear yet another argument why the card selection for 4th Edition was baffling, and one that I didn't mention in the link above? Because before 4th, we would find e.g. these creatures in the core set:

By 4th, as they noted they would remove any card that was "strictly better" than any other, the trio above was functionally replaced by these cards:

Rants aside, Bird Maiden is a pretty sweet card. At the very least as art and flavor text goes.

Damn you and your twisted logic, 4th Edition. Given the 1995 card pool, Granite Gargoyle wasn't literally strictly better than Gray Ogre, as the Gargoyle e.g. dies to Earthbind. But Uthden Troll, however, was strictly better than the Ogre back then. And Goblin Balloon Brigade was strictly better than Mons's Goblin Raiders if we want to keep playing that game. So stop removing Granite Gargoyle from the core set using the "strictly better" argument and then keep Uthden Troll! This only serves to anger and confuse those of us who tries to listen to your arguments.

...

Hm, it feels like everything here is a sidetrack waiting to happen. There's just way too much Magic once you start following the trail of a Granite Gargoyle. I actually wrote a lengthy note on The Castle by Franz Kafka earlier in this post before coming to my senses and deleting it. I also had a somewhat comprehensive table of every hoser in the core sets, along with a treatise on Northern Paladin in particular. And just now I wanted to do a minor monograph on Bird Maiden. I promise I can write 1,000 words on that card. But lets try to focus. This was supposed to be a fairly short post. So lets do a bit less on random lore and a bit more on the card as a game piece perhaps. Like looking at what we have as 2/2 fliers for three mana goes in our format of choice.

Sweet cards.
These are all superior creatures. Though Granite Gargoyle does win in combat when push comes to shove. And it just feels less fragile than the other two. Not only because it'll hold off a Serendib Efreet midgame or a Juzam latgame, but that people don't tend to make an effort to kill it. If you land a Hyppie, that one will get a Fireball for X=2, or Demonic Tutor into Chaos Orb, or whatever the opponent can muster to remove it. Granite Gargoyle tend to deal around 8 damage before someone wises up to it. And at that point it is usually a harder kill, as it starts to laugh at Lightning Bolt around turn seven or so.
"Bolt! Hah!" - Granite Gargoyle.
 
Damn that's a sweet Bolt. It's Kalle's, he commissioned it back when I was still trying to get my first set of Power. But avoiding lengthy side notes on rad alters, in what decks do we want Granite Gargoyle? For that, my current answer is any non-combo, non-control deck that plays red. So pretty much any red oldschool deck. That may sound like way too high praise, but I I've apparently gone full Reindeer on the card in the last six months or so. (And I don't think saying that will mess up the price, as it has somehow already tripled in price since the 2020 Retrospective post. Shouldn't be able to grow more in the near to distant future. Also, Marble Gargoyle is a penny.) Though I think the right number is one or two for most decks. I recently started with one in Project M, but really feel like upping to two after having played it.

My 6th place deck from X-files Invitational. Might need more Gargoyles.

And if you want to be a rad dude and play four, check out this awesome pile from the recent 5th annual Old School Magic Summer Derby, piloted by handsome hero Erik Johnson.

Magic done right.

I could go on. But I was planning around 800 words, and we've passed 2,000 now. I guess there's something to be said for the icebergs; leaving a bit to the reader to find if they want to look deeper. So let's just end by raising our glasses to this lovely creature, one that kept inspiring so much creativity decades after it first saw print.

Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar, we sauté you.

Also, if someone from Wizards is reading this, feel free not to melt all our icebergs. I would love it if characters like Worzel, Roreca, and Thomil never got their own cards. While I love the nostalgia, we don't need to hear every story. A lot of Magic is still to be found on the Shores of Imagination.

Kommentarer

  1. Awesome post!

    I'm more of an offensive creature type of player but started to like the Gargoyle lately. Put 4 in my Dwarven Warriors deck and they all got killed on the spot :-(

    Bought a Artist Proof while playing Dwarven Warriors, they can't kill that 1!

    SvaraRadera
    Svar
    1. Thanks Richard! Yeah, I saw your latest list from Dwarven Warriors up on Raging Bull (https://ragingbullseries.com/index.php/2021/08/12/dwarven-warriors-2021/) just after I'd finished writing this post, a deck pic of that one should definitly have made it into this blogpost had I seen it a bit earlier. Very cool deck!

      And congrats on the AP, that is super sweet!

      Radera
  2. If you have problems pronouncing the chef, Remy has the answer:
    https://youtu.be/XYbXBIUCtHM

    His stuff is awesome!

    SvaraRadera
  3. Thats some seriously good writing! I can't believe how far down the rabbit hole you go sometimes. But I'm glad you do. In my mono red deck, the gargoyle must compete with Ball Lightning and Wendy Efreet for the three drop spot. However gargoyle is very splashable, and probably gets to see more play overall.

    SvaraRadera
    Svar
    1. Thanks a lot man, those are very kind words :)
      And yeah, the three-drop spot in red decks is really tight. Ball Lightning, Wendy, Blood Moon, Goblin King... But I'll still always keep one seat open for a miser's Gargoyle these days ;)

      Radera
  4. I have been reading this article for a week in spare minutes and had a blast. This is something completely different than other mtg posts.

    Thank you again for having such an opportunity of reading extraordinary stuff.

    P.S.: A few weeks ago I have beaten Stasis in our pub with my WB Greed/Skull of Orm/Spirit Link deck. Serra and Divine Offering were definitely stars of the evening.

    Cheers!

    SvaraRadera
    Svar
    1. ooh, the WB deck sounds awesome, is there a chance to see decklist?

      Radera
  5. Something like 3 Greed, 1 Skull, 4 Spirit link, 3 Divine offer, 1 Disenchant, 4 Serra, 4 Suchi, 1 Onulet, 1 Archeologist, 3 Animate dead plus smt i dont remember and lands and artifact mana.
    Just a fun deck trying to make as much of Greed as possible. With some graveyard reccursion.

    SvaraRadera
    Svar
    1. I wanna play greed more but I dont own any black bordered versions and I really dislike the 4th edition versions (and later). I often resort to Book of Rass instead but thats not the same. Your deck sounds great though! Any deck running Onulet are per default a guess :)

      Radera
    2. That sounds like a really sweet list! Ivory Tower perhaps? Can be a great card to combine with Greed.

      Radera
  6. There are some Blights in this deck as well. Comboes well with Skull..

    I play one english and three italian bb versions and they look just fine.

    Ivory tower was in my earlier Greed deck. But without Greed on the table it is just not good enough. So I am trying to gain life by cards which have also other effect.

    Honestly the deck is far from perfect, but for me it is more fun to play my own build then the best net deck under the sun.

    SvaraRadera
    Svar
    1. word! I have some deck ideas regarding Blight and skull with Kudzu. The skull will work well with the drawback of Kudzu (placing it on an new land is optional). Perhaps its the deck were Savaen Elves might come out from the common bulk binder.

      Sadly no one likes land destruction decks..

      Radera

Skicka en kommentar