What a way to end the core set!
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the set, even after talking with the lead designer on the set, Shawn Main, on the Snack Time with Mike and Ant podcast. Visually, core sets are often pretty boring. The art is recylced, the storyline is largely nonexistent, and a cohesive plane to bring anything together is absent on purpose. It was made to be introductory to the game.
The problem is that most players learn from other players or from marketing materials, such as Dragons, Zombies, and Planeswalkers.
This problem ends because the core set also ends. It ends in a blaze of glory, a what-could-and-should-have-been mold for core sets that, for myriad reasons, Wizards couldn’t unshackle themselves to create. We don’t get all the things, like seeing more complex emotions surrounding our heroes. Nissa’s siblings play no role, with love, empathy and joy being ever elusive to include in card sets. Though this scene is about as morbid as humor can get:
Unholy Hunger by Lius Lasahido
I’ve been pounding my fists to say that art is improving every set and the infusion of flavor has gone from pinch to heaping cups. San Diego Comic-Con having two members of the creative team (including an art director) compared to an additional designer is not lost on me. If you haven’t seen it, they lay some groundwork on what’s coming for the art in 2015 and beyond:
Making the story more visible is achievable through mechanics, art, and flavor on cards. pic.twitter.com/HKD3tn6pqz— Magic: The Gathering (@wizards_magic) July 12, 2015
If you watched the SDCC video, Wizards is going all in for future sets with “five pivotal events” in each set, and we see Liliana above as one notion that will become more standard as we go forward.
We’ve always had them—they just have been a bit arbitrary in how important they are on their inclusion because novels existed to reinforce the story. Print no longer exists for Magic storyline, and they wish to have Uncharted Realms and the cards themselves be the primary drivers of story. Having a creative team member on design and possibly development allows for storylines and flavor to be more visible and unable to be cut as easily:
It’s always a racing game between hardcore storyline Vorthoses to find the key moment that encapsulates the entire set. Just a word of warning if you dive back into other sets: Some past cards, such as the below, never technically happened in the storyline:
Promo Art as Card Art
Something also newish that changes the established visual narrative and pacing in a set is using promotional artworks as card artworks. The image below is a very uncharacteristic depiction of a central character in any card game. It’s not zoomed in, it’s not well lit, and the character’s emotions can’t be seen—they’re assumed. This is new.
We have seen promotional artworks be reused, such as the case of Undying Rage from Time Spiral’s cover. This sort of thing is rampant in smaller trading card games, stretching the usages of a marketing artwork. Magic doesn’t really do this all that often. I recall seeing this Aleksi Briclot promotional image of New Phyrexia in Spectrum 18, an art annual of some of the best fantasy and sci-fi art, and wondering what card it would be. It never made it onto a card.
I like the idea of interesting marketing images being used as cards, but in the case of Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh, it’s hard to see her. For gameplay to allow immediate recognition, I don’t think “creature” or even “creature that turns into Planeswalker,” with seventy-five percent of the image being boats, quite works. I’m sure it was a difficult choice whether to crop in on the image from the art director’s standpoint.
As we look at Gideon below, artists are also being asked to add more on Planeswalkers. Notice how much is needed compared to fleshing out an entire plane, allowing for the image to be reused in marketing purposes. Planeswalkers are now given much higher commission rates for artists, yes, but it appears they’re also being asked to make more. I’m not sure how this will affect the future of traditionally painted Planeswalkers, but it doesn’t bode well for us seeing them as even as rarely as we do now.
Remaking of Art?
I’m not sure what to make of art legitimately being remade entirely. This is . . . new. I’ll be asking a few questions in the coming weeks, and I’ll let you know what I find out!
Emphasis on Diversity
I never like to look at card sets in a vacuum. When making a trading card game, cards are moved or shifted or utterly omitted from printing in a set, making a visual cohesion often not seen by the consuming public, and in the worst case, an initiative goes unseen. Just picking up cards from this set and looking at a glance, I’m noticing more diversity in terms of character race. Magic only has a few hard rules about what people should look like. Here’s the list:
- Make an effort to illustrate a variety of races, genders, ages, and body types.
- Feel free to paint beautiful women, as long as they're shown kicking ass. No damsels in distress. No ridiculously exaggerated breasts. No nudity.
- Don't use real-world letters or symbols. This includes religious symbols such as crosses and ankhs.” — “The Magic Style Guide, Part 1” by Matt Cavotta
This appears to be changing. We can’t know because the community doesn’t see the style guides, the books explaining planes with concept art that flavor text writers and artists use to flesh out cards. As such, we only see the effect, not the cause. In Magic 2015, there were six, maybe seven people of color. Magic Origins doubled that number:
I assume you noticed the number of sexy dudes in Magic Origins, just as I did. From Enthralling Victor to Separatist Voidmage and anything Gideon, a few cards were added to up the ante. I assume it’s a natural case of a standard deviation swinging toward more abdominal muscles and glistening sweat.
Enthralling Victor by Winona Nelson
All stops were pulled for the final set, asking the question of why more sexy dudes haven’t been more in Magic as of late. I mean, the incredible art directors know how to paint dudes:
“Soulbound," digital painting, ©2014 by Cynthia Sheppard
I like the inclusions. They work. Magic can’t be everything for everyone, but they can pick sets to include more agendas, if you will, to push.
With more dudes in the set, some artists subconsciously snuck more women into things—like Noah Bradley here pulling a Georgia O’Keeffe:
Mountain by Noah Bradley
Feminists have been celebrating Georgia O’Keeffe’s artworks due to her very evocative feminine imagery. She didn’t always agree with the instant Freudian interpretations of her flower series, but the imagery is beautiful, sensual, and very akin to photography. Macro-photography takes normal subjects, and through looking in a different light, new meanings rise. O’Keeffe’s paintings took a glance into the softness of orchids and lily crevices into a radical sensuality that the art marketing responded to immediately. She was very famous almost immediately while she became a professional painter. They’re wonderful tributes to the ecstasy of nature itself.
You see a lot of sexual iconography in art. A wurm in a forest is really just a phallic outline to an artist before he or she paints it. Every dragon is similarly built. Once you start looking, you can’t unsee the subconscious of artists just naturally beginning from or adding to their pieces, like poor Noah here who didn’t intend that door to look as such.
To list a top-ten set of artworks, it means number eleven isn’t good enough and also suggests there is a worst list as well. I’m just done doing those, in case you missed my last review or two. It’s toxic and always subjective.
Planeswalkers will always be done by artists at the top of the genre, no question there. Seeing them at full size, as shown above, is illuminating, but you already know the art itself is strong.
What I want to focus on are aberrations, things that rise to the surface in a random fashion—art that strikes a beautiful chord without the necessary stakes of a Planeswalker. Planeswalkers can’t be messed up; the marketing demands of them (as shown above) need amazing, so “good enough” doesn’t ever work there.
So feast your eyes on these artworks without the constraints of the card frame. This is Imaginative Realism, the fine-art term for fantasy/sci-fi art. Enjoy!
Guardian Automaton by Vincent Proce
Artists can be tagged in databases and address books on what they do. Art directors can memorize some people—John Avon and lands or Todd Lockwood with Dragons, sure—but it’s the weird tags that I find interesting. “Pretty people” can be for someone like Magali, and “conceptual” art can be for someone like Seb McKinnon. These aren’t the only tags; usually, there’s a pretty long list, and quiet scenes or busy scenes often are somehow listed as well.
There’s a pecking order for when an artist is ready for great commissions. It’s a test of sorts that someone can run through in his or her mind of quality:
- Can the artist paint a person, standing with weight and light in a location?
- Can the artist paint two people interacting with each other in a location?
- Can the artist paint two people, with one on a horse, in a quiet location?
- Can the artist paint two people, with one a horse, in a full scene, with other people in a location?
I find many people can make it to stage two, but that list falls off a cliff at stage three. Horses are hard—they force an interaction of movement in the scene simply due to their shape. A quiet, serene scene in a farm field has emotion injected in simply from adding a horse.
How does this horse discussion fit into what Vincent did above? Well, I know him as a concept guy who makes really out-of-the-box ideas on landscapes. Below is one of his many mood ideas for Innistrad. Not only does it deliver on the dark, haunting nature of Stensia, but it also shows the setting’s gag of a human’s eye view, looking upward at imposing fortresses filled with foes.
Concept art of Stensia, Innistrad by Vincent Proce
Why I’m talking about Vincent as concept artist at all is that, yes, Vincent can paint a horse and is able to paint an eerie calm, such as with Innistrad and Nessian Game Warden, but he also a wild movement, such as the landscapes of Zendikar. His scenes like Maw of the Mire and Spite of Mogis show excitement, but we haven’t seen both in the same scene with him for Magic.
Guardian Automaton is a lavish still life of Kaladesh, Chandra’s home plane, and makes one pause, not unlike this child staring at an opulent world. In a crowded rush, this is a quiet piece. Jeremy Jarvis has spoken about including some quiet works in a game full of war and violence, and this is that piece. Add in diverse characters, and this piece is a gem.
Blessed Spirits by Anna Steinbauer
I wrote an entire article on this little firecracker, and I’ll summarize it: You don’t have to like art, nor do you have to understand its motives and intentions, but damn it, if it doesn’t get you to react in some way, it’s failed.
This piece is just a pair of kid ghosts, the same as Casper’s friendly kind, but it sets a precedent for Magic to say, “Yeah, we can show this; our boundaries set the genre’s standard.”
I find the piece quietly delightful, but then again, I haven’t lost a child as a parent.
I’m happy this made its way into the game, and I’m always a sucker for a good stained-glass window.
Nissa's Pilgrimage by Matt Stewart
Matt Stewart cannot be spoken about enough. He isn’t always that flashy, and he illustrates good cards, but he doesn’t always do the money mythic card. Matt receives the good commissions, and he received the stable enough ones. He doesn’t differentiate the quality. Imagine Tecmo Super Bowl’s Bo Jackson, an unstoppable running back with the Tecmo Zig Zag was a painter—that’s Matt.
Day in and day out, he elevates the minutiae, like this piece, of a major character, Nissa the elf, sitting in a tree, to an $8,500 eBay auction of an oversized painting of intended soft light in a well-meaning depth of field in a mere forest.
Usually, an art director receives an eye-level piece of someone sitting in a tree or of a piece looking up at someone in a tree, and occasionally, a David Palumbo–type great artist will give you a Hunter's Ambush. You never see a piece from above that has no secondary focus—depth for depth’s sake. That super-rare, and to see an artist paint it oversized, for a common card . . . Ain’t nobody does that. This raises the bar for other artists, and I love it.
Separatist Voidmage by Jason Rainville
I have mentioned this card art on Twitter, on Snack Time, and to everyone who is willing to listen. It’s a simple art description given to an artist who didn’t feel that the status quo was good enough. That is incredible. This card isn’t a mythic rare that an art director pushed for. This is a common card, meaning many players in the Limited format of Draft and Sealed will see it.
Jason could’ve made him bald and gone for an easier route, and he didn’t. He could’ve made simplistic armor on a white guy, but he didn’t. This is an art director’s dream: An artist tries for something that hasn’t been seen and then elevates the entire game because of a few very minor, but very culturally important, choices.
There has not been a black character with natural hair in Magic ever. This is new. This is fantastic, and this wasn’t requested in the art description. Artists aspiring to work in Magic shouldn’t look toward what is always being made in mass quantities with fan art. I fully suggest picking up an art annual guide, like Spectrum, and seeing what Magic works were accepted. That level of quality, with genre-pushing sensibilities, is what brings newcomers into the artist ranks—no question.
This is by far the best visually looking core set ever created, and second place is not even close. Crack the next booster you pick up, and just look at the art, one by one. It looks like an expansion set, full of flavor, cohesion, and quality. It’s a shame it’s also the last, and I remain hopeful that this baseline will inform future expansions needing fantastic art.