The 5 Tastiest Cards of 2023

The Tastiest Cards of 2023

Jacob LacknerDesign

As we get closer and closer to the start of 2024, it’s a good time to sit back and reflect on 2023. It was another great year of Magic and in this article I want to take some time to look at the most flavorful card designs of the year.

[Note: In order to avoid being redundant, I won’t be touching on any of the excellent flavor designs in Universes Beyond sets which I covered earlier this year. If this article doesn’t sate your hunger though, you can check out my articles on Doctor Who and Jurassic Park’s flavor highlights]

In Magic, and game design more broadly, “flavor” refers to how well a game piece or mechanic aligns with what it is meant to represent. In short, flavorful Magic designs tell a story using the card’s effect. Flavor is important because it allows for greater immersion within the world of Magic.

Etali, Primal Conqueror / Etali, Primal Sickness

Double-Faced cards are virtually always successful when it comes to flavor. By their very nature, they convey change over time. The front side of a DFC is how things started out, while the reverse is how things ended up. March of the Machine tells the story of the Phyrexians going to all the planes in the multiverse and converting their inhabitants into Phyrexians.

So, it makes sense that March of the Machine is filled to the brim with flavorful DFCs that are regular creatures on the front and Phyrexianized monstrosities on the back. Some of these are prominent legendary creatures from past Magic sets.

Etali, Primal Conqueror is one of these, and I think it is my pick for the most flavorful of these designs. This is because it not only tells us Etali’s tragic personal story, but it is also a really great callback to another iconic Magic card. 

Once Etali transforms, he becomes an 11/11 with Trample and Indestructible, and when he damages the opponent he gives them that many poison counters. In other words, Etali is the plane of Ixalan’s own version of Blightsteel Colossus, itself a Phyrexianized Darksteel Colossus that was created during the invasion of Mirrodin. 

In other words, this one card tells us that the Phyrexians are using a similar tactic on Ixalan as they did during their invasion of Mirrodin.

Borborygmos and Fblthp

The Phyrexianized Double-Faced cards aren’t the only really fun and flavorful cycle in March of the Machine. There’s also the legendary team-up cycle. Each of these cards features prominent characters from the same plane. Generally, these two creatures are an unlikely duo that wouldn’t really get along under normal circumstances. When they designed these cards, they did a great job of combining the effects of the two characters featured on the card.

Almost all of these are excellent flavor designs because they really feel like they stapled together two prominent legendary creatures from Magic’s past.

This is a cycle that tells a story, too. It further establishes the core elements of the story of March of the Machine, because two characters who normally wouldn’t get along are willing to work together to defend their plane from the Phyrexian invasion.

Borborygmos and Fblthp gets my vote as the best of the cycle. One of the best things about these team-ups is the creature type-line which often features what would normally be two unrelated creature types.  “Cyclops Homunculus” is definitely a type-line I never thought I would see..

This combination is one of the more humorous ones too, especially because both of these creatures have names that are famously difficult for players to pronounce. They also both happen to only have one eye, although they are obviously very different sizes.

They didn’t just want to make people laugh with this card, though, they also wanted to make sure that the card  references Fblthp, the Lost and Borborygmos Enraged. To start with, it has the combined color identity of those two cards. 

But the effect also does a great job of combining these two cards. Both of them give you cards when they enter the battlefield, so Borborygmos and Fblthp does too. Borborygmos likes to give up lands to do damage to things, so Borborygmos and Fblthp does too. Fblthp can put himself back in your library, so Borborygmos and Fblthp does too. 

One of the cool things here is that you wouldn’t think these two cards would have very much in common when you first look at them, but they found an interesting and synergistic way to include effects that feel very on-brand for each of them.

Totentanz, Swarm Piper

Wilds of Eldraine might be the most flavorful set of the year. This is largely because it features several top-down designs. A “top-down design” is when they start with a concept or idea that they want to design a card to represent. In other words, they are a design where flavor is considered first. 

As with our last visit to Eldraine, they wanted to design cards to represent prominent real-world fairy tales and they hit it out of the park.

Totentanz, Swarm Piper is a great example of this. When they designed this card, the goal was to create a legendary creature that turned the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin on its head. This is a medieval German folktale that involves a man who plays a magical pipe and lures rats out of cities and drowns them. 

You can see that Totentanz shares the ability to control rats with his pipe, but as the flavor text tells us, rats are Totentanz’s best friends because humans would never accept him.

One really nice touch is that they used German for his name. Totentanz translates to “Dance of death,” and it tells us that Totentanz plans on leading Rats into cities and getting rid of humans there and replacing them with rats. As a result, whenever one of your nontoken creatures dies, you get a Rat!

Contested Game Ball

Contested Game Ball is another example of amazing top-down design. As a plane, Ixalan is meant to be a fantastical version of Mesoamerica. Contested Game Ball represents a commonly played indigenous ball game. It involved a rubber ball and a ring mounted on a wall, and two opposing teams tried to put the ball through the ring. 

Contested Game Ball’s design definitely makes you feel like you’re experiencing the back and forth of a sporting event. This is because it constantly exchanges control between players. Eventually, one player “wins” the game by being rewarded with Treasure.

Brass’s Tunnel-Grinder

In both of our visits to Ixalan, it has been a plane of exploration. While original Ixalan was about exploring the surface of the plane, Caverns of Ixalan is about exploring underground. Generally speaking, the “descend” mechanic does a great job of making it feel like you’re taking part in this type of exploration. It rewards you any time a permanent card goes to your graveyard.

Brass’s Tunnel-Grinder is the card that best represents this new form of exploration. The front side gains a bore counter at the beginning of your end step if you’ve descended in a turn. These counters mean you’re digging deeper into the ground and getting closer to your goal. Once you get a third bore counter, you’ve dug deep enough and the Tunnel-Grinder transforms into Tecutlan.

In other words, after using the Tunnel-Grinder to descend deeper and deeper, you’ve discovered a new cave. Congratulations!

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What do you think were the most flavorful card designs in 2023? Hit me up on X with your take.