Flavor of the Month: Shakespeare (Real-World Flavor Text)

Brandon Amico • September 14, 2023

"Are you sure / that we are awake? It seems to me / that yet we sleep, we dream."

Welcome to Flavor of the Month, where we use cards' flavor as a guide to building decks! 

I'm switching it up a little bit in this installment and introducing a subseries called Real-World Flavor Text, which will be devoted to... exactly what it sounds like!

Magic has a history of using quotes and passages from the real world, be they books, plays, poems, folklore, religious texts, philosophers, or other well-known sources you'd find outside of the game.

These cards were commonplace from the Alpha set and the expansions that followed but started petering out around 2003. You'd see a few more per year following that, but they almost entirely stopped using real-world text around 2010 with a couple of recent exceptions, like the Nils Hamm Secret Lair. I loved this as an avid fan of literature, and it bums me out that they rarely do this anymore.

So I want to dip into this rich literary of real-world flavor texts to inspire some fun deck builds in this series! To kick it off, what better choice than perhaps the most influential writer working in the English language, William Shakespeare?

Writing in the late 1500s into the early 1600s, Shakespeare's work has now endured for centuries, primarily his roughly three dozen plays. You likely had to read Romeo & Juliet in high school, but his certified, Grade-A bangers go far beyond that--King LearMacbeth, The Tempest, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Richard III, Julius Caesar...the hits just keep coming. They've been staged or adapted for the screen countless times, and some very popular media properties are modern retellings of his stories; for example, the movie 10 Things I Hate About You is based on the plot of The Taming of the Shrew, West Side Story is a modern Romeo and Juliet with ~100% more dancing, and a king murdered by someone close to him, only so the prince can seek revenge? That's Hamlet... and also The Lion King.

The Bard is also credited with the first known usage of over 1,700 words we use today, as well as many common idioms like "break the ice" and "all that glitters is not gold." All of this is to say: he's had a pretty big impact on art and the English language as a whole, so it's not surprising back when Wizards of the Coast was using real-world flavor text that they went to the Shakespeare much more than a couple of times.

Billy Shakes has a whopping 25 different cards' flavor texts to his name--more than the vast majority of named in-world Magic characters, in fact. That's a lot, so we're going to focus in a little bit. If we jam all 25 cards into a deck, it'll be a nonfunctioning mess and will require some boring five-color commander; given his penchant for plays focused on royalty (seven Henrys, a pair of Richards, and one Lear, for starters), it'd probably have to be Kenrith, the Returned King.

So rather than trying to jam all 25 cards in one deck, we're going to cast Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, his best-known work that is filled with faeries, with Magic characters in honor of the launch of Wilds of Eldraine. 

Don't be startled by the olde style spelling; this play shares little in common with Ari Aster's 2019 film "Midsommer."

A full summary of A Midsummer Night's Dream would be longer than anyone would want here, but let me try to at least set the stage for those who've never read or seen the play. There are four Athenian youths, and both the men, Lysander and Demetrius, love the same woman, Hermia. Hermia's father has given her hand in marriage to Demetrius (different times, y'all), but she loves Lysander, so she and Lysander leave town through the woods, which is the domain of the faerie King and Queen Oberon and Titania. Demetrius follows them, and he is pursued by Helena, who loves Demetrius though he detests her. Faerie-induced hijinks ensue, and both of the boys are magically made to fall in love with Helena instead. By the end of the play, all this magic is reversed, and everyone is happy and gets married. Also, someone gets their head transformed into a donkey's head.

I'm leaving a lot out, but hey, we're here to talk Magic cards, so let's leave it there. The play is 400+ years old, you can find more info online (and I do recommend it, it's a greatly enjoyable piece when you're not trying to keep the summary to about three sentences).

For today's casting/deck, we'll use legendary creatures for each role. We'll then try to fit in as many of the cards with Shakespeare quotes printed on them as we can reasonably stuff in without including too many awful cards (sorry, Castle). Then we'll see how many slots we have left and will use those to try and glue these disparate pieces together into something fun and halfway decent. That'll be the method to my madness... hey, that's one of the phrases Shakespeare's credited with inventing!

First, let's meet the Players.

Dramatis Personae

Oberon

In Midsummer, Oberon causes mayhem for the four Athenian youths (you'll meet them below) when he has his right-hand faerie, Puck, sprinkle the juice from a magic flower on sleeping members of that party to make them fall in love with one another. He also has Puck do the same to his own wife, Titania, so that she'll fall madly in love with the first person (or beast, spoiler warning) she sees. That way, he can convince her to give away one of her servants to him, presumably out of shame or distraction. This is, of course, a red flag so big you can still see it from the late sixteenth century. Yikes.

In the Magic lore, Talion, the Kindly Lord put into motion the Wicked Slumber to stop the Phyrexian invasion, with mixed results, then had Kellan and Ruby do their dirty work to stop Agatha, Eriette, and Hylda, so the "has a lot of power and influence and wields it indiscriminately" vibe is fitting here: Talion's our Oberon. I can only assume Talion's "Kindly" epithet is ironic.

Titania

Queen of the Faeries in the Athenian wood, Titania's name is, according to frequent Shakespeare editor Thomas Keightley, another name for the goddess Diana, or in the original Greek, since we are in Athens, Artemis. The belief then was that faeries were synonymous with the nymphs that attended Artemis.

And wouldn't you know it, Magic's designers already straight-up gave us their take on Artemis back in Theros with Nylea, God of the Hunt. We also have Nylea, Keen-Eyed from our more recent return to the plane, but I prefer the trample and buffing of the original in practice. There IS a Titania in Magic's world already, but that seemed like an uninspiring pick to me, plus I see no connection there.

Since most of the play takes place in the woods outside Athens, which are the domain of Titania and Oberon, we're going to make the two of them our commanders as a pair. Yes, we're going to need to "Rule 0" them as partners, since they don't really have the ability to share the command zone, but this is a flavor-forward build, so let's just have fun with it, yeah?

Hermia

Hermia decides to run away from Athens to be with her love Lysander, and the two of them take a risky journey through the woods. After dropping off to sleep, she wakes up to find her beloved has fallen for her friend Helena, and even the other dude who wanted to marry her is no longer interested. She believes the three of them are conspiring to make her feel foolish, which, to be fair, is a way more reasonable explanation than faeries playing tricks on them, so she's understandably pretty pissed off.

She also effortlessly rattles off some insults at Helena in her rage that absolutely delight me for their uniqueness: "O me! you juggler! you canker-blossom! / You thief of love!" And, since her rival is taller than she is, Hermia refers to Helena as "thou painted maypole," which, if said in real life, would probably make the recipient crumble to dust. Because of her venomous barbs, in our deck, Hermia will be played by Saryth, the Viper's Fang.

Lysander

"The course of true love never did run smooth."

Sometimes you think you're getting one thing--like a getaway with your lover--and you wind up with something completely different--waking up from your nap under a faerie curse with a crush on someone completely different.

Well, sometimes combat is like that when Satoru Umezawa is on the battlefield. You think you're letting a small inoffensive creature through, but, before you realize it, Etrata, the Silencer is offing your creature and starting a countdown to your own demise. Satoru Umezawa is our Lysander.

Helena

Poor Helena. She put up with so much crap from Demetrius, being betrothed to him then tossed aside when he fell for Hermia, and what does she get in return? Both he and Lysander faerie-cursed, professing their undying love for her--and willing to fight to the death over her. Which is less good than it sounds, because if you've ever been involved with someone who took things too seriously way too fast, you know how awkward that can get.

One of my favorite lines of love in all of literature comes from Helena: "For you, in my respect, are all the world: / Then how can it be said, I am alone, / When all the world is here to look on me?" Stahp. Too beautiful. I'm going with Anthousa, Setessan Hero to represent Helena, because she looks like she can take a lot of crap too and still come out on the other side, and she's generous with the strength (aka buff spells) given to her. Also, since the plane of Theros is essentially ancient Greece, Anthousa might as well be an Athenian too!

Demetrius

Demetrius is ambitious, believes himself entitled to Hermia (and then later, Helena), and frankly abusive, threatening multiple characters with violence throughout the play. This includes his former fiancé, Helena. Still, in the end, Helena marries him because... I guess when the faerie spell was taken off he saw the error of his ways? Look, Midsummer is a comedy, and back then comedies ended in marriages and tragedies ended in death. It just went that way.

I can't say I know anything about the personality of Krydle of Baldur's Gate, but based on the way his card works I think it's a fit for the ambitious but somewhat ineffectual Demetrius.

Bottom

Remember that donkey head I mentioned? Yeah, this is the guy. There's a subplot in this play where a group of tradesmen are rehearsing a play to be performed at the wedding of Theseus, the Duke of Athens. Bottom is a weaver and the most cocky of the group, despite none of them (Bottom included) having any talent for the arts. For those of you who think puns are low-hanging comedy fruit, read Midsummer and see how Shakespeare feasted on the whole "guy who makes an ass out of himself having a donkey head" thing.

Let's have another cursed creature take up this role! There's no Garruk creature, so we have to go a little outside the box. It's not legendary, but you can see in the art that the former human that is now the Cursed Minotaur has suffered a similar fate to Bottom's. He's also about as effective as a creature as Bottom is an actor (not very).

In many written accounts of the play, Bottom and his group--Quince the carpenter, Starveling the tailor, Snout the tinker, et al, are so bad at acting (and producing and directing) their play-within-a-play that a lot of the comedy comes from their ineptitude. They're referred to as "clowns" in stage directions. Which reminds me...

Quince, Flute, Snout, Snug, and Starveling

We need a Clown Car to send in the clowns.

Puck

I don't even need to be very creative here--the design for Throne of Eldraine's Rankle, Master of Pranks is pretty much just a copy and paste of Puck, the faerie servant of Oberon who does his bidding and causes all the mischief, and mischief is what Rankle will be up to with our opponents' boards, life totals, and hands.

Theseus

"The lunatic, the lover, and the poet, / are of imagination all compact."

Another great line from this play, delivered by the Duke of Athens, Theseus. Though he doesn't have much stage time, the character still plays a central role: he was the figure in power trying to enforce the will of Hermia's father to have her marry Demetrius, his upcoming nuptials are the occasion for the play being rehearsed by Bottom and Co., and he's the one who okays the marriages as they settle at the end (Hermia with Lysander and Helena with Demetrius).

Though it has no bearing on the text of this play, Theseus is famous in Greek mythology for killing the Minotaur, so who better to play the role than master beast-murderer himself, Chevill, Bane of Monsters? I wonder if Theseus should rock that mustache in our production as well...

Line!

Now that we have our actors, what will they say? Let's look at some cards with Shakespeare quotes that might fit in with our strategy as it's coming together!

Boomerang is a classic, and although it's been relegated to also-ran status thanks to power creep, it can still be an effective tempo play or a way to disrupt an opponent's combo once they've gone past the point of no return. Winter Blast and Cowardice want us to play a more controlling tempo game and clear the way for our select creatures. Cowardice lets us turn Auras and even buff effects--anything that targets--to bounce spells in a pinch, too.

And we do have some targeting spells with sweet quotes on them too, like Dark Banishing. Naturalize is perfectly playable as well, even without the Troilus and Cressida quote included.

Did you know the Judge Promo version of Pernicious Deed had a quote from Richard III on it? Neither did I! How cool--remember when they used to show their appreciation for judges by giving sweet exclusives like this or Edgar Markov instead of basic lands?

Finally, a couple of cool creature-borne quotes! Moon Sprite is even a Faerie, and is sporting one of the only two quotes from A Midsummer Night's Dream across all of Magic (the other being Gaseous Form).

Setting the Stage

Now that we have our players and their text, let's get them on stage. In other words, let's make the deck do something.

...after we put in a few other flavor-fitting cards, of course! We, of course, need Midsummer Revel, for background music, and the recently printed Asinine Antics, to represent Bottom's transformation. We shouldn't go far into faerie-land without a Bitterblossom, either.

Based on how the characters came together and the other cards we got from the quotes, a rough strategy is starting to emerge that we can bring to its denouement.

This deck wants to connect with some choice creatures and use targeted spells to clear the way or buff our attackers. We're going to tap down, remove, or bounce our opponents' creatures--or make them too scared to block thanks to Saryth, the Viper's Fang so that we're getting through for damage, card draw, and other effects.

Here are a few of the creatures we've added that we really want to connect. Plus, we threw in some Faeries, like Brazen Borrower, Faerie Mastermind, and Halo Forager--thematically fitting, for sure, but also evasive and low-mana-value creatures that will regularly get through defensive lines.

What would a deck be without some options for disruption and removal? Sleep is very fitting for this deck thematically, obviously, as is Beast Within, at least if you're Bottom. King Macar, the Gold-Cursed will be another great one to sneak through defenses since he removes a problem creature and gives you a pop of mana when he comes back right-side-up.

Since we're going into combat often, we need some cards to ensure we can do so effectively. Invigorate and Become Immense get us a big buff for little mana investment (or none at all), and Hunter's Prowess and Hunter's Insight will use combat to restock our hand.

Speaking of restocking our hand, we have some Auras and other effects that will make our opponents' pain our own gain. Between these and cards like Coastal Piracy, Reconnaissance Mission, and Ohran Frostfang, we should have no issue keeping our hand full of more threats, removal, and disruption until we can finish off our opponents.

Book

Here's the final draft of our production:

A Midsummer Night's Dream

View on Archidekt

Commander (2)
Creatures (27)
Instants (10)
Enchantments (11)
Artifacts (9)
Sorceries (6)
Lands (35)

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That's it for Flavor of the Month and our first Real-World Flavor Text deck! Tell me what you think in the comments below or on social media, and let me know if you have any suggestions for a future flavor-forward deck build. Given that we're coming upon the witching hour, I may have something a little creepy on the horizon for the next Real-World Flavor Text deck...



Brandon has been playing Magic since Odyssey back in 2001. When he's not slinging cardboard, he works as a freelance copywriter and is an accomplished poet with a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing fellowship. His literary work can be found at brandonamico.com.