That's, admittedly, often a bit of an open question with Richard Kane Ferguson pieces. His watercolor technique almost has a stained glass quality to it, countless little panes of mottled color accumulated together into an image that swims in and out of focus.
Muscle Sliver, though, has the added weirdness of just not looking that much like a sliver. This might seem strange given how diverse slivers really are. There's a basic body plan, to be sure, but they can grow extra limbs, extra heads, have parts of their bodies expand massively out into new organs, their tails can split off into multiple fronds and tendrils . . .
And yet Muscle Sliver seems to have actual grasping limbs, limbs used to grab and manipulate an environment. It's got those teeth, too. Take a look at those chompers and that weird grin. That's some Mass Production Evangelion aesthetic!
The strangeness of what we can see is compounded by Ferguson's style, which makes it difficult to tell what is foreground and what background, and where different parts of the body connect. Does Muscle Sliver have two limbs with multiple digits? Or is it possible we're looking at limbs grown on the end of its tails? Or are those its tails in the background up — there! — no — maybe there?
Muscle Sliver might be the first card to really raise the question of how far sliver morphology can be pushed before it ceases to be recognizably a sliver anymore. If it succeeds as a sliver, it might be because Ferguson's style offers just enough ambiguity of form that we can catch glimpses of the sliver morphology within, like a mirage.
This is Doug Beyer, talking about the Shandalar/Core Set sliver redesign. It's kind of an odd statement, one that begs a lot of questions. Do slivers need to appeal to a wider audience? Does giving slivers facial expressions actually do that? Are humans so shallow that we can only relate to things that look like us (or, more unsettlingly, VERY like us)? Does relatability, often thrown around during debates about Magic as a kind of trump card, actually that sensible a metric for whether something succeeds in SFF design?
Whether it begs questions or not, it's clear that the baseline for core set slivers is radically different, unrecognizable. We've seen three artifact slivers so far — one created on Volrath's orders, one created by Venser, and one created by, uh, no one important I guess. Each of them represents something about both their world and the baseline nature of the slivers. They are slivers without adaptations, stripped of abilities, and can pretty reasonably be taken to represent a core morphology.
Venser's and Volrath's slivers look pretty similar, though Venser's is beefier, maybe due to his scavenged artifice, maybe due to the aggressive nature of the slivers nesting on apocalyptic Dominaria. The core set sliver, though, is . . . look, it looks like it's imitating a human, right? It looks like a human-shaped robot. It turns out that an artificial replica of things that are trying, themselves, to replicate humans, just ends up kind of looking like a replica of a human.
This is the new standard for slivers, it seems: the new template is a humanoid one.
What are the results? A lot of slivers that look quite a lot like a great number of other things. Megantic Sliver stands out from the bunch, in that I unfailingly look at it and mentally go, "ah, that's a pretty good Elemental design." Others have similar problems. Many look very much like New Phyrexians. Many look quite a bit like Eldrazi. This, admittedly, might be partly the fault of both New Phyrexians and Eldrazi, which at their most underwhelming look a lot like, well, a whole lot of other stuff too. The one thing they don't look much like is each other. It turns out that replacing a specific, iconic body plan with the concept of "shifting chitin plates" doesn't actually work out too well when you're talking about things depicted on a couple inches of cardboard.
Maybe this makes some sense. The new slivers, after all, are also atomized in a way they have never been before. While previously there was only one hive, now there are, apparently, many: slivers no longer boost everything on the field, but only things on your team.
Without the things that defined them, slivers apparently have no recourse but to become, like Sliver Construct, facsimile humans.
There's a real possibility, I suppose, that WotC completely ran out of new sliver visual designs. If they did, Time Spiral's slivers assuredly gobbled up most of the spots. What an astonishing array of creatures!
Take Pulmonic Sliver. Just, take it in. It's clearly a sliver, it's got the one claw, the beak, the tail . . . but it's bloated and expanded far beyond recognition, the bones and chitin of Rathi slivers overwhelmed by blubberous flesh, strange veins and tubes emerging hither and thither. Jeff Easley, its creator, is one of Magic's masters of weird looking creatures, having also blessed us with Thresher Beast, Whimwader, Arc-Slogger, and Cosmic Larva, among others. One of the things apparent with all these creatures: strange body plans, and a fascination with designs that are more bizarre than Magic's typical "badass" and "cool." This is like a frog growing skin over the eggs on its back, or one of the goofier looking bats with their strange ears and noses folded over and over in labyrinths of flesh, or one of the more bizarre things that lurks beside sulfur chimneys deep in the abyssal depths of the ocean. It's real weird.
That's sort of the watchword for the slivers of Time Spiral, the slivers that survived the ravages of the Time Rifts, making up for their first extinction by dodging every subsequent extinction event. The slivers of this era are gorgeous and grotesque in equal measure, sometimes managing to fuse the two in the same organism. And yet they remain recognizably slivers, if only barely at times. It is easy to see how after this menagerie there might not be that many designs left.
And yet . . .
We can actually say, I think, with some authority that the designs of the core set slivers would have done well fused to the original body plan. I mean, see for yourself. Plenty of these designs by alterer Kyle Blankenship look like slivers we've already seen. That is, of course, part of the point. Is that a strike against them? Well, we've seen plenty of similar-looking goblins and elves, and they've done ok.
Certainly the most compelling of these to me, though, are the ones that adapt the most imaginative new designs to the original body plan. Syphon Sliver, already an interesting creature design hampered by kind of just looking like one of Magic's many weird mutanty zombies, strikes me as particularly interesting, and Galerider Sliver's weird tentacle hair looks cool on a sliver body (oh, and note Blankenship's clever addition of webbing between the tails — a logical adaptation for an airborn sliver). Manaweft Sliver looks incredibly cool with the tentacle hair repainted to different colors, which shows just how much room for new takes on slivers there is: the last sliver with this kind of mana generation ability represented it through a gem-covered body.
Of course, part of the nature of this kind of transformative work is that it depends on an original to deviate from, much like the slivers themselves have basic archetypes that are reworked with each new brood. Would the tentacle motif that works so well here have occurred to WotC without the full-scale reworking of the sliver archetype? It's impossible to say.
On the whole though it seems to me that one of the lessons of these different design eras is that slivers are at their best when pursuing the aesthetics of nature itself, in all its endless, bizarre evolutionary solutions.
What does a sliver trying to mimic a human look like? Probably something like this. I actually like Constricting Sliver quite a bit — I think the art is gorgeous, detailed without ever falling into the busyness that sometimes garbles contemporary Magic art, and the general monster design seems unique, avoiding the derivative look of many of the other New Slivers. If this is derivative of anything it's of Tevesh Szat, and that's ok. Hey, maybe it's even a clue! Will Tevesh Szat play a part in Return to Shandalar? Is he the spirit haunting the Chain Veil? Only time will tell but based on this one piece of art I can only conclude that time will tell everyone that this theory is totally correct.
I like to imagine that this sliver's face doesn't really function like a human face should. If slivers can mimic branches and leaves without photosynthesizing, it seems plausible that a sliver might grow a face without a working set of eyes or a functional mouth. There's a definite echo of the beak-like morphology in the shape of the head, as though the face simply developed out of the top pane of the existing sliver body form, like eye spots on a butterfly. The double tail meanwhile seems to have developed into a crude facsimile of legs . . . but that's where the other adaptation takes over, turning the tails into ensnaring tentacles.
With this strange half-development into a humanoid form that ultimately gives way to something much more alien, I think we get, perhaps, a sense of why a sliver would want to mimic humans to begin with.
I mean, evolution isn't a brave, determined march forward toward progressively better and better forms, with humans at the apex. Hastric's narrative of slivers working their way up through order animalia till they finally approach humans just doesn't hold water for me. We can tell ourselves tales of superior human adaptation and feel very smug, but it's just not the story of biology. If the dinosaurs could tell this story to themselves it would not have been true then; nor will it be true when the dolphinfolk who rise after we finish flooding the planet tell it to themselves. Heck, in fairness, calling Sliver Overlord the "end of evolution" is just as silly.
There's no reason why slivers should adapt by becoming more human.
Particularly not when they've already developed the ability to read each other's morphology instantly and treat each other as component parts of a massive computation system. I mean really, it's hard to imagine what slivers would gain from cramming their own existing morphology into a human body plan.
Unless, of course, it is all a lure. Constricting Sliver apparently is adapted to capture and toy with prey to "fully learn their physical capabilities." Is its humanoid form part of this, the slivers behaving like certain mantises which imitate the flowers their prey feed on? If so, just how much can we trust Hastric's first person account? The account is later described as mad by Yisan and Jalira, leaving some real doubts as to Hastric's reliable narration. Did he really witness slivers ordering each other around in some hierarchical society, with religious ceremonies and humanoid slivers at the top of the heap and so on?
Or did he witness a performance for his benefit? Was Hastric captured and let go precisely in order to lead others to the Skep? There's precedent: the first sliver to escape Riptide apparently posed as "a junior researcher" to do it, according to the flavor text of Mistform Sliver. The one great advantage slivers derive from posing as humans is duping gullible humans into thinking slivers are like us.
We can't really be sure. After all, no matter what form they take, the slivers are ultimately, inescapably, gloriously Other.