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Dominaria Art Review

I love how people are starting to realize why I was dying for Dominaria to come out.

Noah Bradley

I returned playing Magic in Future Sight, the last set of Time Spiral block. As many of us do, we take a break. I came back in our first nostalgia block.

Our first interaction with pure reminiscence felt odd for even established players. It was fun and enjoyable and encouraged interaction with the art and flavor, yes. It was good, it just wasn’t fused perfectly.

Future Sight was notable in that it was also Jeremy Jarvis’s first art directed Magic set. He went on to lead the Lorwyn block, the sets immediately after. He delivered a beautiful Celtic fairy tale experience. Alexis Briclot was to Future Sight what Omar Rayyan was to Lorwyn. The largely digital last block of Jeremy Cranford, the art director behind Mirrodin, Ravnica, and more was passing the baton and new Jeremy took the game in a new direction.

We saw a re-centering after, with planeswalkers, a dedication to the style guide in Alara, Innistrad, and returns to both Ravnica and Mirrodin.

The full circle of nostalgia had now happened, starting with Dominaria, then returning to known planes twice in short order. Until Amonkhet, every plane visited was overseen by past Creative Director Brady Dommermuth. As that set came and has now left, we hadn’t seen that a new normal had emerged.

Cynthia Shepherd and Mark Winters became comfortable in their roles as art directors, with Dawn Murin acting as the only constant. Their new creative director has come and gone, and new art directors like Tyler Ingvarsson have joined the team. Even Jeremy Jarvis is now in charge of a more global view of art direction, licensing, and a Vice President promotion isn’t far from his future.

Memorial to Glory by James Paick

Digital

We surely can’t have an art review without discussing the massive Dominaria mistake of posting rules interaction texts early, effectively previewing countless cards before marketing could ramp up.

It’s one thing if a nefarious character is doing illicit deeds for a financial gain.

Something entirely different occurs when a hiccup happens before a preview season begins, cutting off the nostalgic hype build of Magic’s inaugural setting. Marketing a new set would be different this time around.

This is the first set ever that it’s preview season wasn’t about the cards.

It was about the art and flavor. The names and mechanics were known. What the saga cards looked like or felt like was unknown. We have never been given an opportunity where art matters more than the card itself. Five years from now, this experience will be hard to quantify, so I have to document it, and, in reading this little review, it cannot be overstated how important it was that people knew the cards beforehand.

Players had ideas of what the art should look like or could look like from the card mechanics. It’s as if the game Uno was spoiled, with card art that may or may not reinforce a new narrative. Case in point is Phyrexian Scriptures. The art that references Dark Ritual, showing the newer Phyrexian script language and the crying face, an art fused the old to the new, creating a narrative of continuity. It was also a treasure map of hidden details on what the script said. Those were a fun few hours for Reddit and MTG Salvation Vorthos folks.

Add in the fact that Meehan painted this artwork traditionally, a medium new to him for Magic, keeping the canvas texture visible made it feel like a card out of 1997. This is nostalgia and the card underpromised and overdelivered as the first big push out of the gate.

Phyrexian Scriptures by Joseph Meehan

Acrylic on stretched canvas, 22 x 9.4"

I am still unsure what to think of Dominaria because, as a reviewer, an art critique of this set is more than what’s good and what missed. It’s a flash in a bottle that won’t easily be replicated because the tandem who made the set, Mark Winters and Kelly Digges, both no longer work there.

I can’t help but think that the set is a bittersweet triumph.

Art Direction Unfettered

Traditional art direction, as it stands from an exterior standpoint, is writing art prompts, art descriptions as called on by Magic, selecting artists and guiding them if they stray from the brand too far. Having worked on a TCG personally, finding artists that you can trust for prompts that aren’t busy with other projects was a difficult task. Magic is very unique that their talent pool is phenomenal, and the limiting creativity of their art descriptions can be a burden, rather than a comforting factor. Dominaria is also unique because Mark Winters, the art director of the set, chose a different route for how to make the art, throwing the traditional out of the window. He did a few things differently:

1.

Mark chose a few artists to be in the first wave, who were new or have only had a card or two recently, like G-Host Lee. In case there was an issue, he could either give them additional work, or more time for any additional changes needed.

2.

Dread Shade by G-Host Lee

Digital

3.

Mark finished his art description work with his writers as the same time as artist selection. When you tell Noah to be Noah, or to Donato Giancola that he won’t have an in depth art description and he can just paint an angel, it creates different art — more open-ended art, art that people say looks better, different.

4.

Avoiding retcons. In a world where nearly everything happened, trying to tie up loose ends and fix continuity was outside of the visual narrative. By having “old artifacts in springtime,” it allowed a current focus to set in, keeping people looking at the now and searching back, rather than asking for the old and what happened.

5.

Using Time Spiral as “too many obscure references,” Mark chose easter eggs people would find and likely polled folks to how relatable they were. An easy example was Gift of Orzhova and its beautiful foiling process, with its current update of On Serra's Wings by the same German artist, Johannes Voss.

On Serra's Wings by Johannes Voss

Digital

6.

And much more than Mark outlines in his Dominaria Retrospective, a required read for any Vorthos that wants to read the thoughts of an art director.

Notice when the videos explain the set: the Design and Development teams made cards and tweaked them to represent history, yes, but they didn’t decide the visual cues, or the tie of history to art descriptions in how it worked. Two people weren’t given institutional directives on how it needed to be because, frankly, no one really knew. The knowledge from novels is minimally known at best, with Ethan Fleischer being the only person outside of the tiny Creative team who has dove into them. Lightning Bolts and Llanowar Elves are easy to add into a set as cards, but in this particular one, why the latter was there needed a reason, rationale and flavor to explain it. (Even the weapons of our elves here were inspired by their own tattoos.)

Llanowar Elves by Chris Rahn

Oil on cradled board, 16 x 20”

This set wasn’t a writers room, it was two people voting yay or nay on concepts, then bringing others in after the decision was made. Mark and Kelly did amazing work; tackling the visual side and the explanation for why it works was the best I’ve ever seen in a Magic set.

Framing the Art

Changing gears, choosing a shell to showcase your art is beyond difficult. I’m talking framing, and not your local Michaels store. Framing is a highly personal endeavor and learning what are best practices and would look best for your aesthetic is shockingly difficult. One YouTube video won’t be able to prepare you enough. And that describes only normal artworks on your wall.

Imagine a card game artwork you wish to frame and you have to ask yourself if the context of putting the card next to, or within the frame is needed or not. This is discussion on Saga framing and how they inform.

Magic’s earliest artworks, the Alphas, were framed by Wizards Gallery, a small art gallery in Seattle in the mid 1990s that would sell artworks for artists using a commission system. They framed all of their artworks largely the same. They were cheap frames with a solid color to match and that was about it. Likely it was to show that artworks could be hanging on the wall and then the buyer could re-frame their work as they see fit. Most people keep these early artworks in those cheap frames, as you can often see those with prominent collectors today.

I am often asked on Twitter what the mat should be around a painting. And I personally don’t like mats at all. If you have to add another color to bring something in or out of an artwork, you’re not looking at the artwork enough. Obviously, works on paper require mats for logical purposes, but my default it to always go without.

Dominaria will change framing of prints and paintings in our homes. This is new.

I’ve only seen a few people use velvet or suede mats to mimic a card, even adding extra matting below to mimic a card.

I’ve yet to see a map that is a card or a template of a card that people could purchase online to reinforce the idea of what that thing is on your wall. This all comes to light, because a new card frame was revealed in Dominaria. The Saga artworks give us an opportunity to see a vertical artwork, which doesn’t immediately scream Magic: The Gathering when it is on your wall. It’s just vertical artwork.

I look forward to innovations there in framing.

Before we leave the framing sidenote, take a look at the backgrounds of the saga mechanic area. Each of them has representational aspects of the cards themselves. Obviously Phyrexian Scriptures has the Phyrexian symbol but les notable is The Eldest Reborn’s Nicol Bolas horn. I could see these being temporary or permanent tattoos one day on community members.

The Sagas

I wrote a mini art review on them and if you haven’t the time, surely understand that they were not all planned first. The Design team included Richard Garfield which led to the new concept, but how they looked was putting a line in the sand because the number of nodes kept changing. Commissioning an artist for four to six bubbles or options due to development play-testing wasn’t possible to commission an artist to do. How do you make this work?

In a set about history, what’s a vertical rectangle and historical? Stained glass.

Noah Bradley’s stained glass History of Benalia began the push for showcasing the past as the in-game culture’s would. By cutting the card in half, it allowed the art to have its own rectangle, and with the obvious historical reference, a stained glass window, out of the way, Mark Winters then kept his commissioning open to allow Mark Tedin, Joseph Meehan, Jenn Ravenna, James Arnold, and Vincent Proce to all surprise us.

They’re representations of culture. They are what each would have as their marquee piece in their local cultural museum. It’s a brilliant concept and naturally evokes history and nostalgia for people who recognize the details, like in Time of Ice.

https://twitter.com/RedBaronMTG/status/979044065349009409

Current State of Representation

We should check into the state of the game with Dominaria. One would think it would set a new standard with how it showcases a wide variety of people, and indeed, of the sixty-four legends in the set, some themes emerged. Some are great, some are fine, and some well, let’s discuss.

Naru Meha, Master Wizard by Matt Stewart

Oil on wood, 14 x 18”

From an art description writer perspective, where Kelly Digges covered the ground of including old characters versus young characters versus black versus white versus normative versus non-binary, a lot of ground was covered. In a set that has literally everything, nearly everything was in the set. Were I to make a checklist, I would not find very many open boxes. This is a good thing. This set allows the most variety of people to find something that reflects them, their experience, or a community in some way shape or form. Naru Meha could’ve been Polynesian, but she works a lot better as an Indian auntie, an endearing term that Indians use for any older woman, an actual aunt or not.

https://twitter.com/fireantprincess/status/979244839446417408

Serra Angel by Donato Giancola

Oil on panel, 24 x 30”

And yes, Serra Angel is intentionally an Indian woman. I just received confirmation from Donato himself in an interview confirming it. Amber Prison was his first Magic card and due to it being in Mirage, he of course had an African’s hands. He thought to Serra Angel and wondered, why couldn’t she be a person of color? And then, he made it so.

Tolarian Scholar by Sara Winters

Digital

Slowly, Magic is adding more people of color as the only character instead of a group, where one of them is diverse. They even have people perfecting beard and intricate, befitting of culture, and yet still fantastical hairstyles. The set didn’t have ten guilds like Ravnica, but the amount of coverage for all of Dominaria is incredible.

Kwende, Pride of Femeref by Daarken

Digital

With those artworks and depictions of Teferi aside as stellar. Teferi’s daughter card, Niambi, Faithful Healer, is problematic. The card’s only ability is to fetch Teferi, her father, and nowhere in her abilities is she allowed to be a healer. It’s a beautiful artwork and it isn’t irredeemable. It’s creature type, ability and art just don’t make sense together.

Niambi, Faithful Healer by Greg Opalinski

Digital

https://twitter.com/rpf5029/status/978330441689239552

Normally these are cards called heralds, harbingers, forerunners, or recruiters. Were this card to have been not created at all, we would lose the concept of planeswalkers having families, a concept not often explored. That said, in a nearly perfect set, there will be a few pop fly outs in a nine inning game. It doesn’t mean we should omit them. And we should not dwell on them. I do find it useful for historical purposes to show that even the best sets have a few areas of improvement. Either this should be a recruiter typed and named card, or a healer, not both.

This circles back to not having a larger team of creative professionals. People with the skill set of trying to figure out what is the correct casting cost of a Magic card aren’t necessarily thinking about what a black family located in an African setting in the game means to have a non-healer healer. This logically should’ve been caught. It also means an opportunity is open for this character to get a new card in the future that shows more of her personality and her purpose on the plane because Magic is one of the few properties that one will respond to player feedback and either rectify it or make additions in the future. People do notice, people who purchase product, after all:

https://twitter.com/PBanks_/status/987841919333134338

Hallar, the Firefletcher by Bram Sels

Digital

This leads us to a long series of comments that are happening on forums and Reddit on Hallar.

I find it hard to argue that a non-binary character wasn’t simply added because they could. The argument is that Alesha, Who Smiles at Death is the perfect representation of using in-game flavor to show a trans character. The problem is when you only have one example, that doesn’t help the case. There should be no needed flavor to show a man or woman, or black character or any human depiction. There are dragons. The amount of realism is arbitrary. Some people want more realism and I wonder if they made six cards that were non-binary, would they be more open, or less because an entire tribe or group would be explained/justified/flushed out more.

https://twitter.com/jamiemarriage/status/986584672040665094

In the same way that adding in few black characters here and there, normalizing a human concept shouldn’t really raise an eyebrow anymore. Games are going through complex identities and family concepts, as “Dad of War” is the newest in the line of exploring a father/son relationship in a game and it’s seen as noteworthy instead of simply an option. When there are hundreds of cards to commission, we should see every type of gender, race, class, age, and ability. If that one depiction can be the card for one consumer, instead of just another common, it matters for the betterment of the community, including more people in our game. Ultimately, I want to see more people playing, never fewer.

I see this elf in the same vein. I personally don’t mind it doesn’t affect me in any way, shape, or form. But for a group of players, it matters a lot.

The Shaded Set

April King has shown an entire set’s worth of card artworks on Twitter. In doing so, she has compared a beloved set from the past, like Mirage, to a more contemporary set, comparing and contrasting the two next to each other. It’s very art history 101 using the side by side projectors, as one who has studied Principles of Art History should.

https://twitter.com/CubeApril/status/927324768520556544

Her exercise illuminates a few things and explains why about 80% of Dominaria is such a dark looking set:

Mid 1990s sets had no darkest darks. Due to printing technology and the digital art media itself, the darkest black is more of a gray, instead of a slightly darker black. Using a dark purple (like Rahn), deep maroon or green shows a deeper mastery of color vs. just using a tube of matte black. To illustrate what better digital technology has done, we’ll do a little exercise on why art today cannot be any more black.

When you have a base color, then add amounts of black, white or gray, that is called a shade, tone or tint accordingly. I circled below on black vs. white, as it relates to an arbitrary color of green.

By having best in class printing, the darkest darks can be illuminated exactly how will look best at card size and as the artist intended. After all, most artists photograph their paintings themselves, then take a look in Photoshop or Painter to make sure it’s on point as intended.

That totally makes sense, until you see some of the card art.

Look at Tomasz’s Cyclops below.

Rampaging Cyclops by Tomasz Jedruszek

Digital

The light source is behind him, at the top right, meaning we should only see them in shadow, especially as ¼ of the monster’s face is brightly lit. But, as the card needs to be legible in a 2x3” card box, it’s totally permissible and encouraged to fudge the lighting a bit to make the card read. It is a fantasy game, you don’t need 100% realism. This totally looks fine on our computer, phone or tablet screen.

I then took a photo with my DSLR camera and then played with the levels on the photo to make it all the way light and all the way dark. This was to simulate the instant recognition needed to know what the card was under play conditions, and also in some gaming stores that might not have convention center level brightness of lighting.

Both the angry cyclops and the non domesticated kavu are difficult for me to see and I have normal vision. For people learning the game, this takes a slight second of recognition more than instant. People call this “muddy” when art blurs and you can’t quite make out details.

This is a printing process issue.

Art directors like Mark Winters handle card commissioning, as evidenced by Tomasz’s art above, and are not to blame here. This is more the print production team working out kinks in the new process. It’s called the CAPS team and they have some work to do. Especially in a high nostalgia set where many older players will invariably rejoin a draft or buy a box, this creates a potential problem that can be avoided.

This is also a problem for low-vision players.

This is a catch-all term for anyone who has experienced some vision impairment or loss in their normal ability to see. If a card is dark, they will not experience it as intended by both the art director and artist. That creates a feel bad. A fifty year old player can be impacted by this and it also can be easily avoided.

Take a darker shaded card like Thallid Soothsayer below and imagine it 20% darker. You lose everything instead of enjoying this ride or die friend of Slimefoot.

Thallid Soothsayer Jason Engle

Digital

Now imagine if two artworks were similar enough to be confused in a high stakes game like a win and in for a day two or Top 8 of a Grand Prix and due to them both being printed dark, a legendary creature could be confused.

They’ll figure it out. We should just make note that in Spring 2018, there is a little hiccup that needs rectifying.

Standout Artworks

One can’t talk about artworks that need a second look without talking about the sagas. Players have favorites especially as playability widely differs on them. Employees even have their favorites.

https://twitter.com/mtgaaron/status/992497187639648256

I found that while all are good, one really stands out in terms of artistic quality.

The Eldest Reborn by Jenn Ravenna

Brush pen, India ink, white charcoal, white pen, (Digital final) 9 x 12"

One thing we can all agree on is that The Eldest Reborn by Jenn Ravenna is something so radically new, showing something so different that it changes the perception of the game.

This is taking a historical artwork/document that aligns to a real world historical concept and fusing them together to make something that not only fits thematically, there leaves little to be said on what could even be better. Tying to the Umezawa defeat of Nicol Bolas to a historical Japanese paper woodcuts and finally having an Asian American artist not only receive the commission, but also use this opportunity to branch into a brand new property, is groundbreaking. Jenn was recommended by a fellow Magic artist friend, Carmen Sinek, and there is nothing that explains how Magic could’ve had a more perfect introduction via community.

The artwork itself is beautiful in her application of showing a mountain jutting out of water, a common theme in Japanese woodcuts, with homes nestled within the hills. Jenn quieted down the elder dragon itself to allow you to examine the crashing waves and singular brushstrokes that make up its wings. It’s shockingly good and any future art show involving Kamigawa will have to call upon the art collector who as the original.

Daring Archaeologist by Sidharth (Sid) Chaturvedi

Oil on panel, 11.8 x 15.7”

Daring Archaeologist is a beautiful artwork yet it isn’t getting as much discussion because it is failing the Tim Aten test of how many players see the card art:

https://twitter.com/MarkWintersArt/status/684912646114557952

It’s also the first painting I’ve seen in years that can be flipped vertically or horizontally and it still reads. The brush strokes are thick and Sid’s normally a digital artist. I see big things in his near future because he’s pushing for representation and technically difficult artworks to achieve. He wants a big commission and he’s signaling to ask for one.

I also understand symbols here.

The blue and white is far from being non-descript. I caught the reference, I bet you did too.

https://twitter.com/womensart1/status/993045620523925568

Benalish Honor Guard by Ryan Pancoast

Oil on stretched canvas, 16 x 20"

Any time I see an artist publically support another artist’s work, I make a note.

Every time I see an artist swear at another artist in public because a work is so strong, I make a longer note.

When an artist is actively bidding and wins another artwork, it immediately needs mentioning.

Ryan Pancoast is the best artist whose fame and admiration has the widest gap in our little niche of Imaginative Realism. He is shockingly good, his best in class gumroads should be required parts of any illustration class in both process and salesmanship.

As for the honor guard itself, Ryan found the best usage of integrating the stained glass motif into armor without making it stand out like revised layer that an art director made one adhere to the style guide. He muted the color tones toward gray, aligning to the armor. By having colorful flags on the horse, it allows for additional color to not pop out, but rather integrate in akin to ceremonial armor. The armor is realistic, the sword looks like its weight and the character is exactly as one would want to appear. We have seen this example before, in the not so recent past of Magic 2011.

Knight Exemplar by Jason Chan

Digital

If Knight Exemplar was the marquee artwork to add to the Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor Tumblr introducing Magic, Ryan’s new painting is the leveled up version of today.

Raff Capashen, Ship's Mage by John Stanko

Digital

John does not get the credit he has earned.

And while Conviction or Strength of Arms are shockingly good, Raff here is also a fun, strong piece but since it’s his only card in Dominaria, you may miss it.

You may miss his fluffy cloud background, almost showing wings that denote that he flies.

You may miss his realism in painting humans, a hallmark he is already known for like defining the mood of Innistrad with Spiteful Shadows and Feeling of Dread.

You may miss his costuming, all in bright springtime light that Mark Winters asked for, allowing cosplayers to see his full outfit, despite the shadows that would’ve actually kept the details hidden.

There’s movement and body composure, even a star chart of astronomy based on realism, yet as an uncommon legendary creature, he’s draft and limited fodder instead of a playful Slimefoot that the community embraces.

We need to celebrate the Chris Rahn artworks of the world and we do. Upvotes on Reddit and retweets show what artists have reach and popularity. As community members, we also should shed light on artists who are quietly doing amazing work without a horde of supporters. John is that artist and Raff is a beautiful piece.

Syncopate by Tommy Arnold

Digital

A counterspell that is sound. Show us sound.

Akin to taking a complex emotion or concept is to define what is needed. To syncopate is to displace sound. In essence, Tommy is showing us what a counterspell is to a mage of sound. Clearly Teferi is not the beat box wizard, but I find the exercise charming.

I see John Berkey and sci-fi artists who use lines of paint to show radiating waves, pollution, toxicity or electric feedback in their art. It’s different, yet it looks so perfectly at home in Magic that it could come from any core set without us knowing it’s Teferi. It’s rough and yet detailed on the planeswalker and depictions like this, showing a planeswalker doing a spell is what people complained about with Jace in the past. The more comfortable we become with it, the more chances for an artist to surprise and delight.

Conclusion

As Mark Winters worked without restraint alongside the best idea man in the business in Digges, everything feels as complex as you wish.

  • If you seek subtle nostalgic references, they exist.
  • If you wanted new artists raising the bar, search no further.
  • If you wanted your old favorite artists, they emerged like Mark Tedin working on his past.

Years from now, we'll see the milieu of young adult novels saturated with post-apocalyptic themes and Dominaria will stand next to them as relatable yet still fresh. Magic is not immune to cultural favor like Twilight’s vampires or The Walking Dead’s zombies, though this feels less forced, less demanded by an executive and aligned to be the logical setting for a return to home. Without the story lead up, Winters would not have main characters to emphasize moments of time. And for those brand new to the game, they’re given room to discover the plane, and the game itself by a variety of art styles to find favorites.

The art direction and worldbuilding could not have been better executed, and s

imilar properties could’ve fell into larger holes of fixing continuity, or focusing on only the market research tested areas. The set is a triumph, beautiful to see and I cannot wait to see more in the upcoming art book.

—Vorthos Mike


Dominaria is Now Available!