Narset Transcendent by Magali Villeneuve
I remember when Narset Transcendent came out and Twitter exploded—blew up right in my face. Not only were people excited about the art, but they were also saying, “Hey, MJ, is this you!?” and, “You’re gonna cosplay this, right . . . ?”
It was surreal that even one person (aside from my husband) would snap-associate a card with me. Flattering doesn’t even begin to describe it. It made me feel that I’ve actually made a difference in the community with my presence—and all I can do is keep thanking you all for your support and encouragement throughout all my endeavors.
Make sure you read Art of MTG’s Magali Villeneuve interview in which she discusses the Narset (and Titania) commissions. It’s a great read about some of her strongest pieces. And in case you missed it, check out my 7 Questions with Magali from last week. This week, I pestered Mags (can I call you Mags?) a little bit more, I am going to give you some insight on my Narset cosplay build, and, last, I provide you fodder for your escapist tendencies with an MTG fan-fiction feature from CardConfidants.com editor Trevor Gulley. It’s a long article, be forewarned, but I think this way it best captures the work that goes into the cosplay journey from start to finish. All you need to do is come along for the ride!
So sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
Dear Magali . . .
What was the most challenging aspect of Narset Transcendent? This piece is so stunning yet looks effortlessly badass. Did it feel like that to paint, or was it some other kind of experience?
The most challenging thing was the idea of painting a Planeswalker, actually. I absolutely didn't expect this evolution in the character while painting the "Narset Enlightened" version, so when I received the assignment mail for "Narset Transcendent," I was very excited at first—and then a bit stressed out! Even with the amount of care I give each and every one of my assignments, you have a very strong feeling that you just can't mess things up with a Planeswalker . . . or it will shame you forever!
Aside from that, such an illustration is challenging: You have to create a new design that people can identify and remember. MTG Planeswalkers are so iconic, I wanted Narset to live up to what's expected from such a character. It asked for quite some tries until it felt good enough to be sent to the art director.
Today, I still consider this assignment as one of the most important moments in my career. Mainly because it meant a lot to me. Magic was already around when I was in high school, and even when I entered the artists pool at Wizards, I would never have thought I'd be trusted to "create" a Planeswalker. It may sound cheesy, but I have a very special "relationship" with Narset now—I'm very attached to her.
Narset, Enlightened Master by Magali Villeneuve
Many of you might already know that Magali is on the short list of my very favorite MTG artists. Trying to do cosplay justice to possibly her most high-profile piece was a daunting proposition. Despite that, I felt the fire, so I jumped on it. Bought materials the day the art dropped. Then, I proceeded to take over half a year to finish the costume—because I had just had a baby. Many of you probably don’t know that when I shot my Marchesa, the Black Rose, Azusa, Lost but Seeking, and Sydri, Galvanic Genius cosplays in 2015, I was five- to seven-months pregnant.
Baby. On. Board. Passing on the spark, spring 2015. Cranky and hungry in all these.
So the main challenge of this build was the armor. It’s not a strong point of mine, I’m not an armor geek, and I often have to work in fifteen-minute increments that make complex projects a real tedious chore to complete. Sometimes, I’ll think I’m in the clear, and be like applying rubber cement to something and trying to position it . . . then, my five-year-old will charge into the office like a baloth and want to get into everything, the baby will wake up, and I have to go grab him, and now I have two kids in my work room, one doing his best impression of Beyoncé, the other screaming—both inhaling glue fumes while any cos progress I made in the last five minutes goes down the memory jar.
Wearing a yoga mat, a.k.a. “EVA foam.” You can check out the product here and read my review.
Okay, so about that product shown above. Other reviewers noted this isn’t high-density for sturdier armor/heat sculpting, but for Narset’s mantle (not weight bearing, ornamental) it worked great. Also, it’s smooth. I don’t have a dremel/sanding setup, so that was really important to me. I need to be able to cut it and go.
Cutting detail layers from the yoga mat foam.
Armor base with some detail layers added. I have no idea why we’d already spray painted the base at this point. Don’t do that.
More details added, these using kiddie craft foam. Pro tip: don’t use the brown or other ready-to-wear colors first out the foam pack if you’re just going to paint over them. Use like . . . lime green or whatever’s not relevant for you.
In the above picture, you should notice that my decorative pattern on the armor differs from what’s shown in the art, which is more a dragon-scale texture. At the time I started building this, I was like forty pounds over my normal weight and concerned about too much attention being drawn to my post-baby “upper assets,” resulting in a voluptuous look that wasn’t going to jive with Narset’s airy litheness. So I attempted a more flaring, slimming design that was a bit wider on top to compensate for my size (I’m also not naturally as narrow as Narset is drawn), while still staying true to the feel of the lovely Ojutai-era mantle that Magali created.
After some spray paint. If you were to do the dragon-scale design shown in the art, you’d just want to cut out all the scales in foam, then glue them on at this point (before spray painting).
With more of my original design details added. Also shown is how I did the shoulders, sans heat gun.
You’ll notice in the picture above that my mantle doesn’t curve in the “saddle shapes” over the shoulders like it does in the art. With no heat gun setup (I have the heat gun, but no safe place to use it yet), warping the foam that way wasn’t an option for me. I believe if you want to do that kind of convex/concave shaping, you need some kind of heat application method, just FYI. So my solution was just to emulate the shoulder flare with separately placed foam pieces, cut to the proper shape with good ole trial-and-error.
Back detail. Looked at Learn from the Past for guidance.
Cutting the painting stencil for the scarves. This was delegated to the husband, because he’s detail-oriented.
To do the scarf pattern, we took the stencil shown above and used it to spray paint the cloud design onto some satiny blue fabric (a tablecloth). I will spray paint the fudge out of anything you put in my general vicinity. It’s fast, high-impact, and cheap. Why would I use a tablecloth instead of just starting from scratch with yardage? Because it saves me sewing one to three edges. A long expanse of shiny slippery fabric isn’t the easiest to sew by hand, and 98% of the time I don’t have a safe, clean space to take out my sewing machine. Workarounds. Use them.
Left: midway through the build. Right: close, but missing a belt . . .
Of course, the funny thing about my mantle-design story is that in the end—the build took me so long to complete that I’d lost all the baby weight and then some. So by photoshoot time, I definitely didn’t have to worry about looking top-heavy, could’ve carried dragon-scale plus some actual dragons up top without looking uncharacteristically voluptuous, and actually probably should’ve padded out with some cornbread and KFC before the shoot. Planeswalking and trekking through Atarkan lands burns a lot of cals, okay!? Them’s the beats in cosplay and life: You cannot control everything.
Narset Transcendent belt sketch by Magali Villeneuve
When I tweeted at Magali to ask for her help in deciphering what was going on with Narset’s waist accessory, I didn’t expect a custom sketch! But Magali is so awesomely supportive of cosplayers that’s exactly what came my way, and wow, did it help. I used a layer of craft foam plus a layer of yoga mat to get the deeply-engraved look, all glued down on halves of Nancy’s Yogurt containers for stability.
First, I copied, to the best of my ability, the belt ornamentation onto each waist piece.
Next, I cut along the outlines so I could re-glue the pieces onto the base and get that 3-D, heavily-embossed/engraved effect.
Left: letting glue dry, using plastic wrap to hold shape. Right: getting there . . .
So here’s the funniest story of this cosplay, aside from the fact there’s a butter knife in the spear. We get to the photoshoot site, and I’m like, “Shizzz . . . where’s my other glove. Why do I only have one glove?” The baby was sleeping in his carrier, and my older son was being baby-sat by grandma for only three more hours. Driving home for it was not an option, in my mind.
“Are there any of the kids’ clothes in the trunk?” I asked my husband, using up Orzhov prayer points on an ardent but trite prayer we’d find something back there. Yes. A black, kid-sized hoodie. I took the velcro and scissors from the Cosplay Emergency Kit, and thirty seconds later, we had a second glove . . . and a one-sleeved hoodie.
Economy of scale: when you can distribute the costs of say, a giant tub of glue, over several cosplays, building costumes becomes much more economical.
My usual working conditions: Steel Overseer on my back, tricked-out sweatshop.
I hope you enjoy my cosplay of Narset Transcendent. Thank you to Magali Villeneuve for her dauntless support, to James Arnold for his fabulous photo editing, and to Trevor Gulley for penning this wonderful piece of MTG (fan) fiction.
The story is set after Kelly Digges’s “Unbroken and Unbowed.”
Unanswered and Untamed
I closed my eyes and exhaled. For once, Tarkir was quiet.
In the space between breaths, I felt at peace. There was no war in that moment, no clans, no dragons. The riverbed we had camped in fell away. Even the sound of running water and the breeze dancing through my hair faded in the wake of meditation. As my mind drifted, the history that had almost been erased embraced me. After yesterday, I knew it was the story of not only our world, but of a time that would never be and a man who should not exist.
That chance encounter in the mountains with the man claiming to be the sar-khan was like something from a dream. He had been standing bare-chested in the knee deep snow in the middle of the pass, waiting for me to notice him. I thought him a vision or an illusion brought on by exhaustion. At the very least, his scale-shrouded upper body and glowing eyes were certainly not human.
Sarkhan Unbroken by Aleksi Briclot
As he began to speak, the implications of his half-formed statements were bizarre and yet fascinating. Foremost, he seemed overjoyed to see me, to know that I lived, even if I was not the me he knew. However, if his words were true, it wasn't only me who had perished, but his whole world. Its future had crumbled to dust when Master Ojutai attacked the Khans at their summit, replaced by the only time I know. To him, ours must seem a world reborn from that dust, like a phoenix of the Fire Rim.
I am still unsure if he was sent to meet me or if he was searching for me, but his guidance was a gift either way. I knew from the histories Ugin's Haven was to the north, but not precisely where. As in the other time, he traveled with me to the canyon which was the nexus of these converged possibilities. Thankfully, this time the journey was not fatal.
We had found Ugin surrounded by projections of worlds beyond ours. Each image flowed into another, knitting a ribbon that hung around his feathered wings. Among the images, I saw a world with no horizon, where people bustled and buildings stretched on for ages and another that seemed impossibly picturesque with its gently rolling fields and wandering sheep. Even now, I feel the urge to fling myself into them, to explore those worlds’ secrets, but I still have questions here that need answers.
However, not every image in the dragon’s reverie was peaceful looking, and it was that world Ugin was most closely observing. Creatures more grotesque than any abomination raised by Silumgar necromancy ran free over the world's emptiness. There were some who resisted, but the monsters showed no signs of weariness or panic. Their writhing bodies moved inexorably over the landscape, leaving nothing but dust in their wake as the dead, and even the land, crumbled.
Sarkhan had called them Eldrazi spawn. When I turned to inquire further, I could see regret on his face, even as it clashed with fury. The Spirit Dragon turned and regarded us with eyes that had seen eons pass in the way I would watch a sunset.
“You return, Sarkhan Vol.” The dragon's voice had been vast and yet, a whisper. “I had not expected you so soon. Was your search a success?”
“Indeed it was. This is Narset. Who, in my time led the Jeskai, but is just as changed as everything else.”
I wasn't sure how to feel about Sarkhan's introduction, but I bowed anyway. “I am pleased that you would speak with me, Ugin. I have many questions.”
The great dragon bent down to me, his snout inches from my nose. Though I had been this close to Master Ojutai once before, I still felt unnerved. Ugin’s aura washed over me, enveloping me in a warm and heavy haze. Around us, scenes from my life began to play out until that day when I glimpsed another world. The visions jumped then to what I knew of the past. They wound forwards through the scrolls of Shu Yun to the account of Yasova, who saw the sar-khan appear in the past and save Ugin from another great dragon. Though the image was fuzzy, I could see a resemblance to the man who stood nearby.
Ugin's face emerged in the mists. “You, too, are a Planeswalker. That is fascinating.”
“How so?” Until yesterday morning, I had been the only Planeswalker in my world, I hadn’t even known the word until Sarkhan said it. Anything about what I had become was fascinating.
Ugin drew back from us, as if reclining in the air. “The spark that protects us in the Blind Eternities is a rarity throughout the multiverse. That two would be born into the same generation with the gift is astronomical, impossible even.”
He paused then, claw to his jaw. “Perhaps it is a portent of things to come. However, there is not time to marvel at this development. My presence is required on Zendikar.”
His eyes moved back to the projections of other worlds. A man with a whip-like weapon was fighting the Eldrazi. The strands of fabric were cutting through the squirming flesh like a finely honed blade. Golden light flashed around him, repelling attacks from the writhing spawn, but even so he was being pushed back.
Realizing that the Spirit Dragon was about to end the conversation, I felt panic rise in my chest. “But, Ugin, I have so many questions and you are the only one who can answer them.”
“If you must get your answers from me, your inquiries will have to wait. If a slightly more . . . human truth is acceptable, there may be someone who can answer them.” He pointed towards the Qal Sisma mountains.
Evolving Wilds by Andreas Rocha
“In those foothills, there existed a shrine to honor a long-dead alliance. One who would call herself my disciple once resided there. If she is still alive, she will be expecting you both.” With that, Ugin had vanished into a ripple on the air, leaving behind the whispering winds and so many more unanswered questions than I had hoped for.
With Ugin’s shroud of magic gone, the sensations of the world returned. The air of the foothills was chill, but it was only a hint of the cold that awaited us in Atarka territory. The sting in my throat pulled at my attention, trying to break my contemplation. I felt my muscles twitch, my legs already itching to move on to the next place, the next hidden history. Still, I wanted to take time to commit the day to memory.
Instead, I was jolted out of my trance by a loud thunderclap. “We need to move; a storm is brewing.” Sarkhan’s shoulder bumped my own; accidental or purposeful, I couldn’t tell.
“The weather doesn’t concern me,” I said, sure that my irritation at being interrupted was evident on my face.
Sarkhan didn't seem to notice my expression, his glowing eyes trained instead on the darkening sky above. “Much as I would love to stay and watch, it could be unfortunate if a group of Atarka's brood dropped out of the sky on us.”
Something between a howl and a roar echoed through the area, followed by another rumble of thunder. A gust overtook the riverbed as a flight of dragons flew over us. Their antlers glowed like fire against the clouds.
With the Dragonstorm roiling above us, we hurried into the trees. The creek and flap of wing from the circling brood hung over us as the roll of thunder heralded the birth of new dragonkin. I caught Sarkhan’s face out of the corner of my eye, his burning gaze somehow tracking the flight hidden in the low clouds. He was grinning broadly, his enthusiasm akin to seeing a long lost friend.
Sarkhan's Triumph by Chris Rahn
It wasn't long before the storm was moving off to the west. We were set to return to our camp, when the deep tone of a bone horn cut through the forest. Other horns echoed from all around us. It seemed a hunting party had ventured out with the flight of Atarkas—and we were right in the middle of it.
An ainok with a spear crashed through the brush to our left. His eyes were bloodshot and foam dripped from his lips. He let out a howl before charging at us. I spun and knocked the spear from his grasp. Sarkhan, arm outstretched, caught the ainok by the throat and knocked him to the ground. Sarkhan flashed me an unnecessary smile and then tackled me as a storm of arrows tore through the trees.
Finding myself so close to Sarkhan made him seem all the more real, like all he said about the other Narset was true. Even until now, I had believed him some phantom, but it was hard to argue about the reality of his weight on me. His bare arms around my shoulders were surprisingly warm, their heat intruding upon my skin through the silk of my tunic, as if he had been standing in the desert sun and not on a freezing mountain. More curious still was how he smelled like a dragon as much as he smelled like a man. I could feel that an array of mysteries hung around him, their many answers just waiting for the right questions to be asked.
Sarkhan's Rage by Chris Rahn
A man and a woman wrapped in furs and wielding wicked-looking stone axes moved toward us just as a particularly large ogre crashed through the trees from the right. It seemed that we weren't going to get out without a serious fight. Sarkhan smirked and the heat from his body grew as the scales on his torso spread along his neck.
Sarkhan stood, but it was a dragon that turned to face our attackers. His build was unlike any one brood, their features mingled instead into a new breed of dragonkind. The horns sweeping from his temples were a blend of Ojutai and Kolaghan. His hide was a green somewhere between Dromoka's kin and the inky darkness of the Silumgar. His eyes and their burning glow however, were unchanged.
Sarkhan engaged the humans, which left the ogre to me. I pulled at the chill around us, gathering mana from the icy air. As I wove my fingers together, knitting the energy to my will, I remembered Master Ojutai teaching us to harness the cold to mimic his breath. It was that spell that rushed down my arms and out my fingers to hit the ogre in the chest.
Ice crystals formed on his shoulders and arms as my imitation of dragon's breath continued to envelop him. He was ten feet away and still drawing closer, though his movements had slowed. Five now, ice hung off his armor and tusks. Inches from me, my attacker finally halted.
I let out the breath I'd been holding and a wave of dizziness washed over me. I leaned into a tree and waited for it to pass. Behind me, the sound of stone on scales was met with a pair of wet crunches.
Once more, Tarkir was silent and when I turned, Sarkhan was a man again.
“What are you?” It came out sounding blunt and suspicious. As my words hung coldly in the air between us, I also realized the question didn’t make much sense. But it wasn’t worth clarifying.
He crossed his arms. “I am myself and nothing else. I am not a dragon, but I am not really much of a man anymore either.” I stared at him until he looked away. “We should get moving,” he said, rubbing his shoulder. “Darkness comes early up here.”
I felt an unfamiliar curiosity burning in my chest. An idea blossomed in my mind. Before I could consider it, I was speaking. “Could we fly?”
“What did you say?”
“Could you change back into a dragon and carry me?”
His eyes flicked away from me for a moment before he fixed his gaze on me again. “I suppose that is probably better than hiking.”
Dragon Whisperer by Chris Rallis
We flew along the river. I sat astride Sarkhan, my knees tucked under his wings. At the speed we were traveling, the wind was biting, but I felt oddly content. Below us, the river wound through the forest, sinking into a chasm. If I remembered my maps correctly, it was a border between Atarka and Ojutai territory.
It wasn't long before we passed over a bridge that spanned the gap. Wheeling around, we touched down on the Ojutai side. To my surprise, the bridge was wooden, old but well maintained. The railings and boards were worn white from the elements, but the structure gave off an ageless feel. Was this where Ugin’s disciple lived or was this some trickery? Even if someone from before the Khanfall was alive, a wooden bridge should have collapsed from age by now and yet, it seemed recently reinforced.
A figure dressed in a long, fur-trimmed coat the color of sunset stepped out of the trees on the far end of the bridge. “Travelers, welcome,” she called with a bow. “Please, come this way, I just put tea on.”
“Were you expecting us?” I asked loudly of the shrouded figure.
“I was; Ugin told me you were coming this way.”
We went to her. The bridge was real, no illusion; we passed into the trees on the far side. My mind began to race and my gaze dashed about, taking in my surroundings. Amongst the trunks were carefully placed perfectly round stones forming a path through the woods to a clearing just visible in the distance. Surely this was some sort of trap. Yet with each step closer to the clearing my mind felt oddly more at ease.
Stepping out from the forest was like coming up from the water for breath. There was a tranquility in the air, a tangible peace. The thicket was dominated by a square of black sand, at least fifty paces across. Mighty conifers stood at each corner, their needlelike leaves sheltering all but the very center of the space. Back within the tree line stood forty-three dwellings that appeared to be tents made more permanent. Across from us was a stonework building, its first level open to the elements. Within, a dais covered in candles illuminated shelves filled with scrolls.
Tapestry of the Ages by Yeong-Hao Han
As we followed our apparent host, a surprising number of people bustled about around us. Most were human, but there were also ainok, aven, and even one lone efreet among the crowd of fifty-seven individuals. This was no simple shrine.
“I am sure you are wondering why so many are gathered here,” our host called over her shoulder. “It is a tale fit for the ages. One I hope Narset, the Seeker of Histories, will carry with her.”
I was taken aback. The title was not one I had heard before. The words filled me with a certain thrill. “You know me?”
“Of you, child. Your efforts were noticed not only by your Dragonlord. While there are many who would prefer the old ways to remain lost, we who know should do everything to keep the stories alive.”
The woman turned and lowered her hood. Her face was deeply lined underneath a complex network of red and blue paint. Shocking white hair was braided at the temples and pulled back into a ponytail that vanished within her coat. Most striking about the woman however, was her eyes. They glowed with an inner fire that was somehow separately blue and red at the same time.
Profound Journey by Tomasz Jedruszek
“I am Vashti, the last priestess of Ghostflame. This is the Shrine of Unity.”
“Ghostflame?” I blurted. None had practiced the art since the Khanfall; it was forbidden by Master Ojutai.
Sarkhan snorted. “You, just a human, claim to wield the fire of the Spirit Dragon?”
“Words spoken in ignorant arrogance are as sharp and fragile as glass. You are forgiven, Dragonspeaker, but do not make the same mistake again. The blood which flows through my veins carries the legacy of Ugin himself. When the Jeskai were new, my ancestor returned from her pilgrimage to the Temur tribes with the blessing of the Dragonfather. Her daughter was the union of two warring tribes, uniting the martial and the savage with the mystic.”
Something about the woman’s words stirred a fragment of history in my mind. A whisper of a legend that told of the Khans’ rise. An alliance of human, aven, and ainok that would eventually divide into the Jeskai and Temur.
Sarkhan grunted. The woman laughed and then turned to me. “I am sure you have questions, Seeker. I shall answer as many of them as I can.”
“I want to know everything,” I said without hesitation, and the woman laughed again.
“Then let us start at the beginning,” she said, ushering us into a tent-house. “For that is where everything starts.” The door was low—I had to duck, and Sarkhan had to stoop. Vashti took the opportunity to pat us both on the heads like we were recalcitrant grandchildren.
The hearth was warm. The tea was hot. I soaked up Vashti’s words, constantly interrupting her with questions. At times, I felt Sarkhan smiling at me. The tea grew cool. The sky grew dark. And I . . . I smiled at nothing in particular.
Till next time, may Magic be your hot-blooded, warm and fuzzy, rideable dragon-man who’s always got your back.