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In terms of flavor/lore, what is an artifact creatures in Magic? How are they made and how do they run? Is it different on different planes, in different sets, or for different creature types?

I feel like there are a number of possible explanations. Here's a starting list:

  1. They are something in the realm of mechanical AI (similar to the clanks from Girl Genius).

  2. They are very complex wind-up dolls and have nothing approximating intelligence (in line with the old Phyrexian Hulk flavor text "It doesn’t think. It doesn’t feel. It doesn’t laugh or cry. All it does from dusk till dawn Is make the soldiers die. —Onean children’s rhymeby").

  3. They are magically animated (Pinocchio is unfortunately my best fictional analogue here; somebody please come up with a better example).

  4. They are vehicles with an organic pilot bundled together into a single card (as distinct from the new Vehicle artifact type).

  5. They are biological in origin but have become mostly machine through modification (like Robocop or General Grievous).

  6. They are the combination of a person/creature's spirit and a machine (such as Ghost in the Shell).

Karn, Silver Golem is likely a special case. This is exemplified by the fact that none of the Karn Planeswalkers (such as Karn Liberated) are artifacts.

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    What does “robot” mean for purposes of this question? – Ryan Veeder Apr 23 at 14:18
  • @RyanVeeder I had a definition of robot, but I have reorganized the question a bit to make it more clear. – Zags Apr 23 at 18:34
  • @murgatroid99 Fixed. I'm not trying to have a philosophical question about what is or is not a robot, but rather about how artifact creatures work – Zags Apr 23 at 21:15
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Artifact creatures don't have consistent origins or properties.

The name "Artifact creature" represents the intersection of two fuzzy categories. "Creature" would seem to mean "animate being," but it also includes illusions, walls, and illusionary walls. "Artifact" usually refers to something that someone built, but it includes some natural phenomena like eggs and flowers.

A creature can have artificial material grafted into its body and become an artifact, like Breya, or Robocop. The Mirari possessed intelligence and a will of its own as a non-creature artifact; then it became/gave rise to Memnarch, an artifact creature (arguably "the same thing as the Mirari" but able to walk around).

I'm not sure why Karn should be treated as a special case: Prior to his tenure as a planeswalker, he had a long and illustrious career as an artifact creature: Built by wizards, without any organic components, but with his own intelligence, volition, and personality—essentially the same kind of entity as Bosh. (The fact that he's not an Artifact on his planeswalker cards probably has more to do with the designers' willingness to let him be destroyed by Naturalize, or the amount of space on the type line, than his nature in lore.)

The flavor text on Saheeli's Silverwing indicates that it's intelligent enough to understand spoken instructions. Akroan Horse is clearly inanimate, but still qualifies as a creature (in another decade it would have been a "Horse Wall")—but, still on the plane of Theros, Gold-Forged Sentinel is "beholden to neither" gods nor mortals, and flies around doing whatever it wants.

The "Construct" creature type evidently denoted artifact creatures that were not created magically—according to someone, at some point in time. This proposition does not track with the evidence. There doesn't seem to be anything magical about the Akroan Horse, but it's still a Horse and not a Construct. Creepy Doll, a Construct, was probably nonmagical when it was first built, but if it's not magical, then how does it stab things to death?

Artifact creatures can be intelligent or mindless. They can be magical or nonmagical. They can be animate or inanimate. They can be robots or cyborgs or neither. Their nature isn't consistent within a plane, and it isn't consistent within a creature type. There's no set of criteria that define artifact creatures, but rather a family resemblance that characterizes them in the minds of the artists, loreweavers, and designers.

The nature of that family resemblance is hard to put into words without sounding dismissive, but I believe it really boils down to "An artifact creature is a creature that is, or at least seems, artificial."

  • On that point about Karn not having the Artifact type: Liliana doesn't have the Human type either, but we know she's a human along with most of the other planeswalkers; she doesn't have the creature type, but we know she's a living being. Planeswalkers just aren't given additional types aside from their planeswalker types. – doppelgreener Apr 25 at 10:37
  • Planeswalkers don't have creature types, but Artifact is a card type, so an Artifact Planeswalker is "legal" in the same way as the Enchantment Creatures of Theros. I guess they could also make a "Tribal Planeswalker — Human Liliana" without technically breaking any rules. (Heck, they write the rules; they can do whatever they want.) – Ryan Veeder Apr 25 at 14:37
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    Oh, sure, I agree. I just mean this helps demonstrate that just because a character's card doesn't include a type, doesn't mean lore-wise they aren't that type. Karn's an artifact, Liliana's a human, even if their cards don't ever have those types. This could be pointed out by e.g. amending your third paragraph with “Note that Liliana's still considered a human even if her Planeswalker cards never have the Human type attached.” If you don't want to do this, that's fine too, you can flag these comments as no longer needed. :) – doppelgreener Apr 25 at 15:09
  • I’d rather leave things as they are, since I think each comment expands usefully on a point that, while interesting, isn’t vital to the answer itself. Each comment, that is, except for this one right here! – Ryan Veeder Apr 25 at 15:23
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Lorewise, the only similarity I see among artifact creatures is that they are made at least partially out of non-biological materials, especially metal. Beyond that, the composition, genesis, and sentience of artifact creatures varies widely.

Remember that Artifact and Creature are game mechanics first and foremost. Some are mostly artifact until they become creatures (Keyrunes, Vehicles etc). Others are creatures (even humans), who have been enhanced with metals to become artifacts. The only reason that the Karn Planeswalkers are not also artifacts is due to game mechanics. It would be pretty bad for a Planewalker to just die to a Naturalize.

Is it different on different planes, in different sets, or for different creature types?

Yes, the plane the card depicts is the most important in the background behind the origin of the artifact creatures. With the exception of Core Sets (like M19), each set and block is designed to take place within a specific plane. MtG lore is as complex as the game, but there were some clearly artifact focused planes and sets:

  • Phyrexia, a plane whose inhabitants are often a weird hybrid between machine and decay. Phyrexian oil helps corrupt other creatures and artifact to make them more like the rest of the Phyrexians.
  • Mirrodin was a plane created by Karn that became infected with Phyrexian oil. It eventually turned into New Phyrexia.
  • Kaladesh block had a heavy artifact (even steampunk) theme, but this was flavored as part of the Inventor's Fair. Artifact creatures here are solidly in the machine/automaton category.
  • Esper's inhabitants (like Breya and Sharuum) use Etherium to enhance their bodies and ward off the effects of aging.

As other answers have noted, certain artifact creature subtypes do have similarities. But the most important factor in the flavor of an Artifact Creature is the plane it originates from.

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The MTG WIKI answers a lot of your questions.

By and large, most artifact creatures are robots of some sort, and were fashioned out of metal, glass or stone by other creatures or planeswalkers. As such, decks heavy on artifact creatures are often called "Robots" decks.

Here are a number of creature types are usually associated with artifact creatures.

Construct

A Construct is the Magic equivalent of a robot, a magically or mechanically animated device, usually with a pedal propulsion method. They come in a wide variety, but often imitate organical lifeforms.

Golem

A Golem is a magically or mechanically animated statue. The most well known Golem is Karn who has since his construction become a planeswalker.

Myr

The Myr are a race of small creatures with beak-like heads native to Mirrodin. They were created by Memnarch to act as spies.

Scarecrow

Scarecrows are artifact creatures native to Shadowmoor and lead by the Reaper King. Originally they were constructed by the Kithkin to help them with farming, but outlived the Kithkin and have taken lives for their own. Mechanically they often deal with colors and -1/-1 counters.

Thopter

A Thopter is a small flying device, Ornithopter being the most well known.

SOURCE

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    I found that page pretty unhelpful. It only gives partial explanations for the animation mechanism of Constructs and Golems ("magically or mechanically animated" doesn't narrow it down much) and gives no explanation for the other types. – Zags Apr 23 at 12:53
  • The use of "thopter" as a root perturbs me slightly, since ornithopter comes from "ornithos" + "ptera". But "copter" is short for helicopter, so it's not like there isn't precedent. – ConMan Apr 23 at 23:17

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