Despite the perfectly written art description, despite commissioning the perfect artist, and despite everything seemingly going right . . .
. . . The art on a Magic card can seem out of place.
An art director’s job is stupidly difficult, and rarely does much of his or her work become seen. They aren’t supposed to be seen or heard much in a release of a product other than resultant sounds of, “This card looks awesome.”
Today, I noticed that one card in Oath of the Gatewatch fights an art rule of Magic. These rules aren’t visible, they are not tropes, and they aren’t seen by themselves. To uncover this hidden use of symbols and tendencies, I’ll show you what I see and let you determine if a card in Oath of the Gatewatch fits the mold.
Art Rule: Eleventh-Hour Art Change
Without failure, in nearly every block of a trading card game’s creation, art will move around to different cards without us the consumer and player even noticing. Often, this is done by commissioning another artwork and writing a new art description, and a slush piece of art will exist from a previous art description no longer being used.
In the best cases, the old piece that was replaced can be uniform enough or close enough to fit another card’s purpose. Spells or action scenes are the easiest to change, as dealing 2 damage with fire can be 4 damage with fire, and the art doesn’t change at all. It becomes more difficult when a prominent storyline character or legendary character is deemed to be with a bow but the character’s mechanical attack is only hand-to-hand. When you see this in Magic, it used to be flying creatures that don’t have wings in the art.
These days, since a creative-team member works on the design and possibly even the development teams in making and tuning cards, these format-breaking artworks are much rarer to see. You need to look extra hard. Let’s walk through some of the historical examples of what I mean by eleventh-hour art changes.
Image via cnbc.com
Art Doesn’t Fit the Art Description; Change the Card
Back in the late 1990s, the Urza’s block of Urza’s Saga, Urza’s Legacy, and Urza’s Destiny were being created. Saga is a strange set in that it has multiple planes and times on it. It’s quite difficult from a single card to tell where the card is supposed to be unless you know the storyline or you’ve played with the set quite a bite. To start, the set is hard visually to get a grasp on. What the art director at the time didn’t expect was an artist not knowing what a creature was.
See the card Hidden Predators below? The art description actually asked for gibbons. A gibbon is just an ape, differing from monkeys because they have no tail, amongst other things. Well, suffice it to say, the artist didn’t know what a gibbon was and probably thought it was a fantastical creature. Since the artwork was completed, and they hadn’t the time to recommission, they made these creatures Beasts, and no one was the wiser. Notice, there is no flavor text to Hidden Predators, and it is the sixth card in green, compared to only five in white and blue.
The gibbons do make an actual appearance a full set later. You can see a few stragglers in white and black, but as for this green card, it shouldn’t be there because those Apes should’ve been printed a set before. They probably recommissioned the art and ran out of time to change it.
I showed all the cards in these blocks to show utterly how difficult it is to find an aberration like this. You have to be looking for it.
Other eleventh-hour changes occur due to no fault from the artist, designer, or art director who wrote the art description, but actual technical problems. These issues are less common these days with comprehensive rules and cloud storage.
Plateau — Well known now in 2015—and less asked because Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited dual lands have become nearly impossible to see at shops or even Grand Prix events—is the question of why the revised Plateau has different art.
It’s the only dual land that received new art in Revised Edition because the original art had become unusable. The hard drive with the image crashed. This version is actually by Cornelius Brudi, despite the misattribution to Drew Tucker. They covered the change in an old Arcana segment on the mothership site. An eleventh-hour change had to be made for new art, and we now have two Plateaus.
Clone — While researching this article, I had forgotten about this one. I blame the concussions from sports. It involves Morphling originally being just a reprint of Clone. I’ll let Mark Rosewater tell the story:
I tried to bring the card back in Urza's Saga, but the rules team at the time gave up and requested we change the card at the last minute. The art had already come back so we had to design a card that mechanically made sense with the art.
Just think: One of the best tournament staple of its time was made because the rules team couldn’t make it work. Though, last-minute changes to cards tends to do that, as Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Umezawa's Jitte, and Tarmogoyf have proven.
Development Department Change
Cards can be changed to fit the card art, as shown above, and they can also just not change, leaving you wondering what the original card was intended to do. I have two great examples of this in Rhox Bodyguard and Emmara Tandris.
A lovely jumping Rhox, a rhino monk of Bant, is coming toward us. That’s pretty cool, but the card is a 5-drop that doesn’t jump. Arcana had to explain why this card was cropped so closely in the art:
. . .
When the flying was taken away, the art seemed a little off. But one very careful job of cropping later, and everything was perfect!
It’s a fantastic fix, and if original art wasn’t being circulated around the Internet even then, this might not ever have been found as a “mistake” that clever art directors fixed in the eleventh hour!
Emmara and . . . What’s in the Background There?
Mark Rosewater explained on his Tumblr that Emmara was another art swap due to rarity numbers making it impossible to have all ten guild champions at mythic rare because Ral Zarek was already one of the nine:
It made no sense to put a character with an obviously intentional token in the background of a card with blanket protection to all tokens. Her having no title also reinforced the idea that this art wasn’t correct. Could they have referenced the token in the background in the flavor text? They probably could have, saying something like, She heals elf, human, and elemental, but it was such a major change that there was no way to just Photoshop the giant Elemental or hand-wave it.
The reason for this article is seeing the new Kozilek and immediately knowing this card is an eleventh-hour art change. I’ve listed the Eldrazi past and present titans, including the Emrakul promo card, to show one thing: focus.
The new Kozilek has an issue with focus. The titan is not the focus of the piece. His hand is the focus.
My guess is they commissioned a few Kozilek artworks, and the Jaime Jones and Lius Lasahido piece didn’t look at final and, in the card frame, as strong as Aleksi’s here. The focus is on Kozilek’s hand, something you would not see in a legendary creature card that is this vertical. Magic has five aspects for art description writing: action, focus, mood, location, color, and notes. The focus is off probably because the art was changed.
Mocking up the cards, you can see what the others look like:
Mockups provided by @TheProxyGuy, the best mockup and proxy man in the business.
The format size is perfect for Jaime Jones, but that art wasn’t chosen. Lius’s art is horizontal, so it’s obviously out, and that’s okay! In the frame, you can see it looks more like a groundbreaking spell than a titan creature.
Then, you see the art chosen. It’s not massive, imposing, impossible, and horrifying like the previous Eldrazi images. At sketch stage, these are totally usable. At final and at two inches by three inches, it then becomes complicated.
So, as for the Aleksi piece, it was probably a spell—considering the light coming from Kozilek’s hand—and they just swapped places of it. I think it works and will do the job just fine. No one might have even noticed it.
Do I like Jaime’s better? Well . . .
Art Has Rules
Today’s rule is the Eleventh-Hour Art-Change Rule. I hope I can share some others soon.
P.S. If you want to hear more about art rules and the stories behind them, Snack Time with Mike and Ant is a podcast I cohost in which we talk about Magic art, flavor, and story like this all the time. Check it out sometime.