(You can find prints and more of Questing Phelddagrif in the OMA store!)
When Alliances debuted in June 1996, players furiously tore into packs to get their hands on copies of Balduvian Horde (yes, that was one of the most-hyped cards in the set), and sometimes found a quirky rare staring back at them.
A four-mana 4/4 creature with no immediate drawbacks was a solid rate for a creature in early Magic history, but what the heck was a Phelddagrif?
There are two stories about the origins of Phelddagrif. To tell them, we first must establish some background. In early Magic, many of the designers included easter eggs and in-jokes hidden in the names of cards in sets. Some were references to the names of the designers, others of the names of famous people, and some were even references to characters from the creators’ home RPG campaigns. Nevinyrral's Disk from Limited Edition Alpha, for example, is science fiction author Larry Niven’s name spelled backwards. Alchor’s Tomb from Legends was supposed to be Alchor’s Tome, a powerful book of spells wielded by Wizards CEO Peter Adkison’s D&D character. Sadly, the artist for the card misinterpreted the word “tome” as “tomb,” leading to the card as it was released. So where does the name Phelddagrif come from? Phelddagrif is an anagram of Garfield Ph.D. Richard Garfield, as we know, is the creator of Magic.
There was a rule established by the brand team during the early years of Magic that whenever Garfield’s name was mentioned in any official context that he be referred to as “Richard Garfield Ph.D.” A nod to this was later included in the card bearing his name and image in the Unhinged set. Phelddagrif, as we discussed, is an anagram of Garfield Ph.D. So how did this end up as the name of a card, and why was it a flying purple hippo?
One, possibly apocryphal story involves the card Freyalise's Winds from Ice Age. According to the story, the card was turned in as Phelddagrif’s Winds. In the Ice Age storyline, the named character was supposed to be a goddess of spring, but the Continuity Team, what we think of today as the Creative Team, didn’t believe Phelddagrif was an appropriate name for their nature goddess. The name later became Freyalise, who we now know as the planeswalker Freyalise. As the story goes, when the designers asked what the name Phelddagrif sounded like, someone from Continuity reportedly responded “"Umm, I don't know. A flying purple hippo?"”
According to Mark Rosewater, the more likely story is that the design team knew of the brand team rules of how to refer to Garfield, and that there was a running joke within the company “that it was just a matter of time before the game made a purple flying hippo.” The design team responsible for Ice Age and Alliances, known as the East Coast Playtesters, were some of the first playtesters on Magic prior to the game’s release. They designed the original Phelddagrif as a double in joke, making a purple hippo that could sometimes fly, and poking fun at the brand team.
They gave the card three activated abilities, one for each of the card’s three colors. Each ability had a kind of drawback in that it gave something of benefit to the opponent. More important than the drawbacks to any of its abilities, the design team also made the card legendary.
When Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH), the format we now know as Commander, first took off, players quickly scrambled for interesting Legendary creatures to lead their decks beyond the Elder Dragons who inspired the format. One of the first creatures many players landed on was Phelddagrif. The adorable Amy Weber art had made the card beloved by players, though it had seen no tournament play. It’s hard to look at the chonky big-eyed hippo, and not love it. The card’s drawbacks could also be turned to advantage in “group hug”-style Commander decks, and it still sees play today.
The original legendary purple flying hippo was the only one of its kind in Magic for five years. Then, in 2001’s Planeshift (part of the multi-color themed Invasion Block), a new non-Legendary Phelddagrif appeared. Questing Phelddagrif was again a four-mana value 4/4 creature in Bant (white, blue, and green) colors. In addition to not being Legendary, it had a new set of activated abilities setting it apart from the original Phelddagrif. What’s more, the illustration by Matt Cavotta embraced a more realistic style—if you can call a purple hippo with wings realistic that is. While Phelddagrif and Questing Phelddagrif remain the only two Phelddagrifs in Magic, Cavotta’s illustration of Questing Phelddagrif for Planeshift is no longer the only version of the card.
The 2021 Extra Life Secret Lair drop, a charity fundraiser benefiting the Seattle Children’s Hospital, had a theme of famous cards illustrated by children and then reinterpreted by professional artists. In addition to those six cards (two versions each of Mulldrifter, Craterhoof Behemoth and Metalwork Colossus) were two bonus cards: a pair of Questing Phelddagrifs. One featured a stick figure-esque sketch by Magic Head Designer Mark Rosewater, and the other was Dmitry Burmak’s interpretation of the sketch.
Rosewater’s sketch is very much in the vein of the pieces he’s illustrated in the past like Look at Me, I’m the DCI, and others. In it, we can see a hippo wearing a cape leaping through the air. It’s an adorable reimagining of Questing Phelddagrif from a winged hippo to a cape wearing super hippo.
The Dimitry Burmak version not only captures the essence of Rosewater’s sketch but infuses it with more joy. The Phelddagrif leaping through the air with their tongue hanging out is the perfect amount of cuteness. It’s right at home in the Extra Life Secret Lair, and alongside the Amy Webber original Phelddagrif. These bonus cards are not the only place our beloved flying purple hippos have made a surprise appearance.
Magic is no longer the only game featuring flying purple hippos. The 2002 computer game Age of Mythology (part of the Age of Empires real-time strategy (RTS) series) had secret and powerful flying purple hippos. These airborne cheat units could be summoned by typing “WUV WOO” in the in-game chat bar. While not named Phelddagrifs, these are clearly a nod to the creatures from Magic, and it’s cool to see them crossover in this manner.
While it’s been years since we’ve had a new Phelddagrif join the herd, I wouldn’t give up hope on seeing more of our flying purple hippo friends in the future. The willingness of Wizards to reprint Questing Phelddagrif, not just in the Extra Life Secret Lair, but also as a straight reprint in the Mystery Booster product shows that there are fans of the creature type working inside Studio X. With Magic embracing more worlds than traditional high fantasy, it hopefully won’t be long before we see purple flying hippos in Magic once more.
What do you think of Phelddagrifs? Do you have a Phelddagrif Commander deck? What other creature types would you like to see explored? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter: @comeaupaulj.
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