Recently I’ve gotten back into Magic drafting, which you probably don’t care about, but it has led me to a new appreciation of how good those cards are at a number of things.
Let’s try an experiment. You’re only included in this experiment if you’re a Magic player who’s played during the Weatherlight saga or Mirrodin. Let’s say you’re playing a tabletop RPG, and you’re the GM. The players have just stumbled upon a beast corrupted by phyrexia. Can you describe it, off the top of your head?
From my own experience, the answer is yes. Even if you’ve never read any of the long-form fiction (books, comics) that goes along with those sets, or read the Wikipedia articles about those fictional places (I’ve done neither), so long as you’ve played a bit with those sets you have a pretty clear idea of what a phyrexian is, what they look like, what they do. You might even be able to improvise some phyrexian-scripture-like dialogue.
Magic cards are an amazing combination of text and art that tends to implant some concepts about the things they’re meant to represent using very little space. Each individual card can be read in under a minute, but together they form a picture of fictional places and creatures quite clearly.
Especially within the last five years or so, there’s been a consistent style to (non-mechanical) Magic text that helps establish a sense of place. Overblown adjectives, pithy comments, and off-hand references are all common to this little flavor text.
Now let’s try a different experiment. Again, a bit of self-selection: you’re only included in this experiment if you’ve at least read the 4th Edition D&D Monster Manual 2. Again, tabletop RPG, you’re the GM: the evil wizard summons up a squad of earth archons to protect him. Can you describe them, off the top of your head?
Again, from my own experiences, the answer is no. Or at least not well—with a phyrexian I get a clear idea in my head, one that’s based on someone else’s ideas communicated to me. With an earth archon I’ve got some basic ideas, and I can certainly fill in more, but there’s not a strong core to it.
The interesting thing here is that I’ve likely read more direct description of an earth archon than I have a phyrexian. I can tell you how strong they are compared to a human, how likely they are to be hit by a guard with a crossbow etc. But I can’t think of anything particularly interesting about them.
The point here is not that phyrexians are cool and earth archons aren’t. Phyrexia could easily be a Geiger parody, earth archons could easily be a memorable and unique aspect of a game. The point is the presentation: I get more of an intuitive inspirational idea of phyrexians from a few sentences spread across many cards in a fairly abstract game than I do from two solid pages of text dedicated to telling me about earth archons. The idea of a monster doesn’t require much space.