Syphon Soul

The closing lines from my last - extremely content heavy - post saying that "next time we'll write about, let's say, Syphon Soul", was intended as a bit of a joke. I'm in the arduous process of collecting a Legends set and recently acquired a handful of missing commons, including said Syphon Soul, and the card was at the top of my head. But then I figured that, hey, Syphon Soul is an as interesting a card as any, and surely it deserves some real attention. Because in old magic, most every card has a story to tell.

At first glance we see that Syphon Soul explores the concept of using black magic to steal the opponent's life force. This was first established in The Gathering with the card Drain Life. But where Drain Life had a very straight forward art and flavor (a man looking tired as his life essence is magically drained), Syphon Soul leaves a lot to our imagination. Who is that strange middle eastern wizard, and what's he doing? Did he capture the souls of his enemies in those colored spheres, or are the spheres the souls themselves, locked into that net thing? It almost looks like the wizard - or is he a priest? - is offering them as spoils to some unseen entity just out of frame. There's an untold story here.

This sort of art - art that prompts you to imagine without holding your hand - was common in the early days. This is particularly true for oldschool artifacts. Like, what kind of blasphemous trinket is a Winter Orb? Just take a minute and look at it and try to tell me there isn't a proverbial iceberg here.

Modern artifacts tend to be either straight forward representations of familiar objects, or represent plot-relevant things from the current mtg story line. Bronze Sword, Moonglove Extract, Bolas's Citadel, what have you.

If you're wondering what this thing is, just google it for an official explanation. That doesn't really work for relics such as Mirror Universe, Howling Mine, or Black Vise.

Older cards often tasked you with coming up with your own story. Occasionally, you'd get some flavor text to clear things up a bit, like on Juggernaut or Ornithopter. But going back to Syphon Soul, that thing has quite possibly the most complicated flavor text I've ever seen on a Magic card. 

"Her lips suck forth; see, where it flies"

Did you get the joke? Of course you didn't, you'd be crazy if you did. It feels like I might be the third or so person ever to say "see what you did there" to this flavor text, and that's because I might actually be crazy, dedicating hours upon hours of my life on deep analysis of Syphon Soul. And now Imma drag you down with me, so buckle up mofos!

"Hey, I'm just this ordinary poodle bro, don't worry about it." - Not Goethe

Ok, so to understand the flavor text, we should probably first familiarize ourselves with Doctor Faustus.

The literary Faustus is based upon the (likely) real person Johann Georg Faust, who was something of a German Aleister Crowley in the late 15th to early 16th century. And that's me being flattering to Mr Crowley. The historical Faust is described as a magician, astronomer and alchemist during the German renaissance, and is attributed to several magical texts and grimoires of his era. Faust quickly became a legendary figure in German folklore, and several fictional works about him were created over the centuries. The most famous of these - and arguably one of the top five greatest literary works ever produced - is Goethe's Faust. Part one was published in 1808 and part two as late as 1832; one year after the author's death.

Though it was quickly reprinted and can be found in my Collected Works of Goethe from 1836. Can't read German that well unfortunately, so when I want to go deep Faust I have to fall back on my Swedish translation from 1853. #OldSchoolBooks.

Goethe's Faust is a balls-to-the-wall spectacular book. I honestly can't recommend it enough. The only problem is that it is so wildy OP that it'll make you disappointed in any book you'll try to read after it. 

In a nutshell, most fictional interpretations of Faust tells the story of a well educated and highly intelligent German doctor who searches for a meaning of life. In his desperation for understanding, he makes a deal with a devil called Mephistopheles to get supernatural knowledge and abilities in exchange for his soul. This whole thing generally goes kinda bad for Faust, and most versions of the story are tragedies.

Yeah, this guy is from the same story.

Goethe's Faust is actually quoted on two iconic Magic cards, but you'd be excused to have missed them. Because while the cards should be familiar to most people reading this blag, the only version of them with the flavor text are the ones printed in German Foreign White Border Unlimited from 1995.

This one isn't even mentioned as a card with real-world literary flavor text on the MTG wiki. Feel free to update, anyone.

This was the poodle's real core,
A travelling scholar, then? The casus is diverting.
The learned gentleman I bow before:
You've made me roundly sweat, that's certain!

God damn Faust is awesome. Now I want to take a break from writing this blagpost and re-read Faust instead. That Demonic Tutor flavor is up there with "Use the Force, Luke" as iconic quotes go in my book.

The most emotionally draining play I've ever seen was Elfreide Jelinek's FaustIn and out, which had a short run in Gothenburg a couple of years after Jelinek won the Nobel Prize in literature. It's a secondary drama to Goethe's Faust where the tragedy is switched to Faust's love interest Gretchen's perspective. Also the ordeal takes place within the confines of Joseph Fritzl's basement. That play siphoned my soul to such an extent that I had to go home and re-watch Iron Man before I could sleep just to cleanse my palette a bit. But fuck it, I realize we're fast approaching a rabbit hole here. Let's pull back up before we start quoting Ur-Faust or discuss Brian Yuzna flicks again.

So the Faust story that is quoted on Syphon Soul is Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, commonly referred to as simply Doctor Faustus. This play - preformed way back in the early 1590s - was the first fictional take on the story of the historical Doctor Faust. There's one other Magic card that also quotes this play by the way; the 2001 FNM foil Ophidian:

I don't know where they found this particular translation, but the quote is from when Mephistopheles tells Faust that he'll get next level knowledge if he gives up his soul.

In Marlowe's play, after our protagonist makes the infernal deal with Mephistopheles he spends his allotted years on earth doing nothing really worthwhile. Great power begat great apathy, and Faustus mostly uses his magic for practical jokes and frivolous show-boating. When his 24 years are coming to an end, he conjures up the shape of Helen of Troy (of The Iliad fame) for the benefit of some scholars, and later asks Mephistopheles to give her to him as his lover. Mephistopheles obliges, and what then follows are the most famous lines of the play:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies.
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell for heaven is in those lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.

So do you see it now? Svante Landgraf, you're a literary scholar, maybe you saw this coming? I'll give you a second.



Ok. So the mechanical flavor of Syphon Soul is that it "siphons" or removes someone's soul. And what they did here was that they took one of the most famous lines from a late 16th century German play about a man losing his soul - Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies. - and then removed the word "soul" from the quote. Get it, they removed the soul? Like Syphon Soul kinda does? God damn that's deep literary nerd. No wonder they opted to skip the flavor text on the Beatdown reprint.

Kept the expansion symbol, removed the flavor text. That's a sign of something.

After Fifth Edition and Beatdown, Syphon Soul mostly laid low until it was revisited in Onslaught. Here the flavor is a bit more spoon fed; Phage the Untouchable has a bad touch and sucks the life out of everyone around her.

Few people cared that much about Syphon Soul's appearance in Onslaught, but it served to remind people that black had a thing for draining for two multiple times. This was a bit of cool teaser, as we would see when Tendrils of Agony made its debut in the block a short while later. This "fixed Syphon Soul" would turn out to be an insanely powerful card, and its impact on constructed Magic is still felt to this day.

But there was another card in Onslaught that even more clearly showed what Syphon Soul had brought to the table all those years ago. Something we might take for granted now, but which was a truly revolutionary design in 1994.

What is this, flavor text for n00bs? Didn't even have to read a single novella to get the pun.

It may be the thick air down in the rabbit hole speaking, but right now I could argue that Syphon Soul was the most important single card in Legends. Because even with all the innovations and new rules of the huge set - from rampage and bands with other, via poison counters and world enchantments, to legendary permanents and multicolored cards - Syphon Soul was the first card in Magic that explicitly asked you to explore multiplayer.

Sure, there were cards before it that scaled with the number of opponents; Pestilence, Iron Star, Balance, what have you. But there was never a card that so blatantly got more effective if you had more players at the table. Syphon Soul brought the idea of multiplayer to hundreds of kitchen tables. Today these kind of designs are a dime a dozen, but Syphon Soul was where it all started. While Legends certainly is a set with flaws, one can't deny the impact of bringing both legendary creatures and explicit multiplayer cards to the tables. Today these are the core components of Magic's most popular format, Commander.

This descendant was printed in a Commander precon almost two decades after Syphon Soul first saw light of day.

There's more here if we want to dig. I've lost games of Magic to Syphon Life, a fringe playable used in some versions of the Legacy Eternal Garden deck in the late 00s.

Again, what's up with all the obvious art and flavor texts, modern Magic?

And in the nostalgia-driven Time Spiral block, we'll find a spellshaper from the legendary Urborg who has mastered the art of soul siphoning.

Syphon Soul itself has since been reprinted in the casual multiplayer sets Planechase and Conspiracy. Always with the Phage art; our strange priest and his colorful soul-balls appear to have been lost on the other side of the millennium. And as effects go, Syphon Soul is a fine card. Maybe not that exiting by today's standards, and certainly not a card I expected to write 2,000 words on a couple of weeks ago, but a fine card. You could play it in Brother's Highlander in good conscience.

So yeah, there was something to unpack here as well. It usually is with the old cards. While we probably couldn't write a thousand words on every card in Legends, we could in all honesty probably do it on half. That's one of the reasons I like to collect the old sets. The cards have stories, even the seemingly inconspicuous ones. I'm sure there's a life lesson in here somewhere if we look. But now I must cultivate my binder.


  1. Svar
    1. I'll take that as a compliment ;) I wasn't really expecting to namedrop Elfriede Jelinek or post pictures of FNM Ophidian here either...

  2. What would required to change this to be playable outside oldschool edh? CMC 1b? Three damage? Cantrip is not in the rules (except for the jeweled birds)

  3. MY INFERNAL HAILS, YES. A MOST EXCELLENT READ!!! As a Necromantic mage trying my best to climb the occultist ranks, I’ve recently plumbed the tedious sewerage that are MODERN FRAMED CARDS in an attempt to make Majick evil again, as Garfield intended. As above, so below, behold, ye olde border Innistrad:
    A gift for all fellow mages of the black arts on this All Hallow’s Eve!

  4. Incredible. Posts like these are the Gravity's Rainbow of old school blogging, making the efforts by all the rest of us look like Harlequin novels in comparison. I'm not only saying this for the shout-out. (And no, I did not get it, but I very much appreciated the journey.)

  5. Thank you so much for the kind words.

  6. Excellent post! I love to learn about the bits below the surface that make up the flavor and culture? of the game.


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