Dragons of Tarkir is the most art-directed set since The Dark. A history summary for those of you who don’t know is coming now. The Dark was head designed by the then-art-director Jesper Myrfors. Set design was a little Wild West with power levels and mechanics, but The Dark was the first set that had a strong visual consistency due to Jesper.
It was gritty in a raw sense. If The Dark had a 2.0, Innistrad would be nearly the ideal of a 1994 vision. This brings us to Dragons of Tarkir, which is everything Scourge wanted to be.
From a twenty-thousand-foot level, this set delivers a punch so hard on one point: recent nostalgia.
Zendikar (new) Scars of Mirrodin block 2.0 (old) Innistrad (new) Ravnica 2.0 (old) Theros (new) Tarkir (new) Zendikar 2.0 (old)— Mike Linnemann (@VorthosMike) March 6, 2015
For those of you who didn’t play during Time Spiral block, let me tell ya: It was utterly confusing. It was created to be random, and the references, nods, and winks to established players were difficult even for the most diehard of Vorthos community members—for example, consider Ridged Kusite.
You would have to know the art to Guided Strike and know that Guided Strike had a reprint in Judgment, which differed from the Weatherlight version. The time difference to pick up on this reference was ten years between printings and an expert level of art knowledge. That failed as a visual gag for the set and block. Brady wrote about this:
Sadly, that was the wrong decision. It made it hellish for new players to understand what the hell was going on. It was as though you had to be in the enfranchised, cool-kids club to get it. I hated the block fiercely because I felt it was too difficult for new players to understand. I was coming back into the game, so I understood the idea—I just thought and think it was the wrong one. More notably, look at what Brady had to say on using recent nostalgia:
Boy has that changed since 2007! Look at the micro-nostalgia we have now.
This has helped sales because you’re always current, and I suspect we’ll see a lot more of this. If we’re going back to Zendikar, shouldn’t the Eldrazi leave that plane and attack Innistrad? We would have gothic horror turn into more eldritch/Lovecraftian horror, which Zendikar block only touches on instead of dives into. With the Germanic background of Innistrad, it’s a pretty easy connection to be made to descend into deeper madness. Reading some of Grimm’s more obscure fairy tales and having the ability to create Elder God as a creature type is not lost on me.
Dragons of Tarkir Gags
I really love the “gags” of this set. (It’s what their art directors call the little visual cues that differ in the set. A few Redditors are really enjoying finding the before-and-after versions of card art, even posting follow-ups. I love a good Vorthos hunt.
I do love a before-and-after shot!
Visually, we haven’t received a resolution to the Khans of Tarkir block. Warring factions nearly killed each other in a world without dragons, and then dragons nearly made humans and humanoids extinct, and now humanoids and dragons aligned in factions. We’re currently in a stable world. If a whiff of Sorin and his connection to Innistrad hasn’t filled your nostrils, it should now.
To summarize, the vampires (among the other beasties of Innistrad) would’ve wiped out the humans, hunting them to extinction if Sorin hadn’t intervened. He created an angel, Avacyn, Angel of Hope, to have a religion that would give the humans strength to battle back the night. They are not supposed to win, but rather be a stable food source for vampires. We left the plane when the angel reappeared from being locked away, and things went back to relative normalcy. We don’t always have that.
If you recall New Phyrexia, two cards explained the entire block’s storyline: the Mirrans were overwhelmingly eliminated.
Singular cards can summarize a storyline, such as New Phyrexia’s genocide of the Mirran people. Deicide killed the idea that Xenagos would stay a villain. Instead, he was killed, and the cliffhanger was that Elspeth also died—but is in limbo.
The Zendikar block unleashed the Eldrazi, but we didn’t hear if they wiped out the Kor and other peoples there. From one card, Gelatinous Genesis, we see that Eldrazi annihilation isn’t complete.
Rest assured, the dragon world will be revisited. That door is too wide open to not return to in the near future. We have an Alara, except the groups are closer together with some overlap compared to wide visual differences.
Art and Flavor Breaks
Dragons are great; I love seeing more of them, but the basis for the block—an Ottoman/steppe group of khans—is broken apart in the third set in two instances. The first is with the dragon statues, and the second is the Spidersilk Net.
I just don’t understand these “mana rocks.” Yes, I understand that Development needs gameplay in Limited to make sense, and a Keyrune-style artifact would be needed. The problem is that either the creative team’s hand was forced or it’s a total punt. If a mana-fixing thing to become a creature needs to exist, a dragon totem would work; absolutely, that could be dragons until end of turn.
The problem lies in that a lot of the clans wouldn’t build these. Kolaghan shouldn’t have the time, infrastructure, or necessity to forge a giant dragon statue, and the Atarka are wasting valuable time and resources that don’t really make their dragonlord less hungry. Most importantly, khans—and Ottomans, whom this block is based on—wouldn’t erect things. Sure, Abzan and Dromoka make things, fine, but if he’s there, why make a false idol? If dragonlords are so against khan worship (i.e. idol worship), why would they make one of themselves? Is it because they want to be revered? Really? Why worship a statue when a living embodiment exists? Why would they care? There is a religious iconoclasm reference here. Basically, iconoclasts destroy and remove things that they found heretical—consider religious sects that weren’t canon or part of the Holy Roman Empire and such. I see what they did there or could’ve done, but it makes no sense.
If I were on the creative team, I would have suggested one of the following:
1 — Make These Enchantments
These could have been flavored as enchantments that read like this:
It’s already established that the storms produce dragons, so why not have five cards that can do that? This would be an interesting twist on the "mana rock" being an artifact. The trouble is they would have to be hybrid to make sense, and I can see these shot down by design pretty fast, as we just finished an enchantment block in Theros.
2 — Flavor the Artifacts as Items That Summon Dragons
This flavoring creates a much better flavor–mechanic interaction that aligns with each brood and what you would expect them to care about and have on hand as a means to produce mana and summon a dragon.
The flavor of statues transforming into dragons fails on multiple Vorthos levels, as many of the groups/broods shouldn’t even be making statues to begin with, and the flavor implies that these statues come alive and are "artifact creature dragons." It’s super-weird to have a manifestation of a dragon when real ones are around, spirits are banned (I guess), and the thing that creates the dragon is stationary . . . though some, like Kolaghan, won’t be around to activate the statue. If they were to make tokens, that would mean five new tokens and five new artworks of Dragons, which take time, resources, and headaches.
Two options for artifacts are possible.
This allows the idea that a dragon—which are numerous to any area—can be brought via a thing, which isn’t solid but needs mana to be concocted. Food is one gathering item—or gold in Silumgar’s case, or a giant fire with a special smoke or a lightning rod for Kolaghan. I’d love to hear, “Cast summoning meat,” or, “Cast paper stacks for Slummygar.” These could’ve been flavorfully fun cards to cast.
And here’s another option:
There could’ve been a much more flavorful option, but hindsight is always clear when a set-breaking flavorful card is made.
As for Spidersilk Net, it’s an Equipment that gives a creature the ability to defend against a Dragon . . . Wait, are there spiders on Tarkir? Where are the spiders? Do they live in caves near the Jeskai? Are they in the jungles with Silumgar, just hanging out? I’m just confused as to why this was forced into the set.
Brushstrokes Are Back
Time Spiral was the first “very digital” block in Magic. Future Sight was especially digital-looking. Aleksi Briclot made so much amazing in this block.
From there, Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block was very painterly.
Shards of Alara was a mix of the two, depending on shard.
Zendikar was moving fast toward digital, yet it had Justin Sweet, Steve Belledin, and Christopher Moeller still working with their paint.
Scars of Mirrodin, being the pendulum swing, had to go digital again.
Innistrad swung back to more traditional art, with Return to Ravnica block being a mix again as Alara was.
Theros block was painterly with light color palettes. Notice that Steve Argyle, a digital artist, isn’t in the block at all.
Tarkir continues that tradition with digital to supplement the whole. If recent history serves us right, we should have a swing back to more digital works in the near future.
I must say that the creative team of art directors don’t necessarily think of pendulums or having “more digital” into a set, but rather, they consider what artists depict in their style and how they fit together in a block. There is never an entirety, but there is a general direction you’ll see. I always look for the number of artworks Eric Deschamps, Daarken, and Aleksi Briclot received for digital compared to Steve Prescott, Wayne Reynolds, and Dave Kendall, who work traditionally. Kev Walker, who works traditionally, and Seb McKinnon, who is digital, are just fantastic if they have the time to work on a Magic assignment, and I hope they are mainstays still for years to come—with a veteran and a relatively newcomer, that is.
The full art review is coming next week. I have some help this time around with some full artworks. In a set that rivals The Dark, I see some of the best art in years. Let’s dig through them soon!
P.S. The traditional paintings of Tarkir have not missed a beat yet. There hasn’t been one that has hit an auction or gone unsold unless an artist wishes it to be. We’re hitting saturation in the market, and new blood isn’t able to keep up with the demand and high cost. I’d watch for more sketches by digital artists to emerge soon, along with a few sketches per original as a market correction from demand.