Historically Speaking — ‘Nacatl’ means what?!

Words have weight. A heft, like a cleaver, or a rolling pin. Words like imperator or carnifex, tribune, or legion evoke certain images, certain moods; they carry deep over and undertones and implications. Take the previous examples—they evoke a Roman flavor so before we even see a card, we’ve drawn expectations. Look at Licia:

Roman government did tend towards the bloodier solutions to problems, after all...

Exercising her right of veto all over your opponents’ entrails!

Words lead us to have expectations of the world, the characters that inhabit it, or the set itself, further heightened by illustrators. So, words matter: some are light and some are heavy and sometimes they wear each others’ clothes while shrieking for the overthrow of the upper-classes and land-reform.
Words can make the flavor of a plane or prove a key plot point—every Magic player remembers Kamigawa’s flavor (samurai and spirits!) or Lorwyn’s horrifyingly strong Fairies and whacky Boggarts.

So knowing all about the subconscious and conscious power of words and expectations, today we take take a single word, and examine it using our knowledge of linguistics to uncover a joke hidden behind a nearly dead language and a mostly-unloved keyword.

The Word is: Nacatl

The word is nacatl and in Magic: The Gathering’s history, it’s only been used in the name of five cards, and used in the flavor of two. Take a look:

Despite its relative rareness in a card game that spans thousands of bits of cardboard, the word nacatl still resounds heavily because of THIS ONE:

This card came to be the all-star for Naya Zoo decks for a short time. In terms of one-drops, the angry jaguar-lady was the most notorious thing in non-EDH formats since Kird Ape—a 2/2 on turn 1 is absurd and allowed Naya Zoo (and Gruul, and Selesyna) decks to pressure and attack for significant damage right off the bat—because it becomes a 3/3 able to attack on turn two with the right land drops.

Nacatl, on its face, seems like a made up word meant to immerse the player in the Mesoamerican inspired shard of Naya. Seems logical—Wizards invested some effort in making each shard feel different: Grixis is a fetid hellscape that wouldn’t look out of place in most dark fantasies, Esper is a mechanists’ dream, Bant an arcadian/Arthurian paradise, and Jund is Australia, only with more dragons.

We’ll talk more about Naya’s Mesoamerican roots later, from its use of behemoths, to the geography and the so-far-largely unexplored game of matca (based on ulamall/pitz and soon to be the topic of another article.)

Making soccer riots look tame…

With that background out of the way, let’s explore the premise of the joke that took nearly a year to unfold and I’m convinced that few noticed–until this day! Onwards!

Kitty Deity

A dancer dressed as Tepeyollotl, the Heart of the Mountain, courtesy of Codex Borbonicus.

Mesoamerican mythology and culture has more than a passing association with cats, specifically jaguars. One of the aspects of the god Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror, was that of Tepeyollotl (Heart of the Mountain) a tremendous jaguar who lived beneath distant mountains and whose growls caused earthquakes. On a more secular note, one of the Mexica’s elite warrior branches was labelled ‘Jaguar knights’ and were frequently depicted as wearing entire jaguar skins as a badge of rank.

Jaguar warrior in full attire carrying shield and obsidian-studded macuahuitl (Codex Borbonicus)

So there is a bit to go on just with those two references. Plenty for an enterprising design team to base a warrior-race on Naya off of, right? Right, so lets move to the linguistics of Nacatl.

In Nahuatl, the language of Mexica-controlled Mesoamerica, the word for ‘cat’ is mizton, not nactatl. Plural cats would be ‘miztonmeh’. So it wouldn’t surprise me if most Magic players assumed the ‘nacatl’ was either a made-up-word for cat or a Mesoamerican word for the same. I mean, it’s a logical supposition, afterall. As a student of Nahuatl, when I opened my first pack and saw ‘Nacatl’ in a card title, I nearly broke my ribs laughing.

You see, “nacatl,” is the Nahuatl word for “meat”.

By itself, that’s quirky and a little lewd in a card game setting. Behold!

“My meat attacks for 3!”
“Meat Hunt-Pack chump blocks!”
“Wild Meat is coming out turn one!”
“Meat Outcast can’t be tamed by metal!”

All giggling aside (for Magic is very serious business where people who find things funny are routinely scourged, as we all know) this struck me as either an oversight on the part of Wizards or laziness of the linguistic/research variety.

Here’s the joke.

Lets remember what the keyword of Jund (Fantasy-Australia, but with more dragons and volcanos as we mentioned—and now I have the image of Sarkhan Vol cosplaying as Steve Irwin stuck in my head), which interlocks with Naya during the Conflux is:


Jund is a plane of endless hunger. Dragons sit on top of the food chain—goblins on the bottom—and every human, viashino and elemental is scrabbling to devour or avoiding becoming brunch for something else. So while Jund is an all-you-can-eat buffet sans heating pans, and you could infer a joke with the use of the word “nacatl” in the coming conflux of planes, there was nothing from Wizards that hinted that this was anything other than a whacky coincidence.

Here’s the thing that made me laugh: This otherwise unassuming card pays a very, very sly joke—can you spot it?

Convection-cooked meat!

“Jund feasts on the unwary.” Indeed!

Roll Credits

I like to give credit where I think its due, and think that someone over in research and development was laughing themselves silly at this. The joke was set up two sets before with the introduction of the Nacatl in Naya, and foreshadows their fate during the Conflux beautifully where everyone fights/eats everyone–Naya and Bant getting the worst of it.

Anyway, I’ll catch you lot next week. Onwards and upwards!

I'm from just north of hell, I was schooled in a blossoming backwater, and currently am the worst living bureaucrat since Franz Kafka breathed his last, tremulous breath. I’ve been playing Magic: The Gathering since middle school, and Commander in particular since college, putting about a decade of experience brewing, scheming and fuming over historical travesties under my belt. I get dizzy walking in straight lines. 
I recently received my MFA from Arcadia University's creative writing program. My work has previously appeared in Podcastle, Stonecoast Review, Devilfish Review and Bride of Chaos.