Oftentimes, my preview cards showcase key story moments—Liliana starting down her dark path in Tainted Remedy, Jace's fateful meeting in Ugin's Insight, or the fall of the titans in, uh, Fall of the Titans.
My card today doesn't have anything to do with Magic's overarching story—in fact, there isn't a Planeswalker in it at all. What it does have is one of the most elegant blends of art, design, mechanics, and flavor that I've ever seen. It's one of those cards that immediately grabs your attention and only gets better the more you think about it. Here—I'll show you:
The illustration is what captures my attention first. What Christine Choi accomplishes here is very clever. Artists have tricks they can use to direct the human eye around the frame in the order they choose, imbuing the power of narrative into a single piece of art. Choi manages to do that here almost exclusively through her measured use of darkness and light.
Follow along with me. At first glance, To the Slaughter is a pretty dark card—it is black, after all—so your eye is naturally drawn to the brightest part of the illustration: the little lamb on the lower right. By putting the lamb in the foreground and bathing it in a bright ray of diffuse sunshine, Choi makes it the focal point of the card. No one is going to say, "Wow, I've been playing this card for months and I never noticed the lamb!"
The next thing you notice is—holy mackerel, is that a giant hand coming down on top of that innocent little critter!? We're mostly seeing the underside of its hand—the part that isn't being hit by the light—so it doesn't pull focus away from the lamb. Choi highlights each claw just enough, though, defining their sharpness and reinforcing their visual perspective. The hand isn't just over the lamb's body, it's in front of it, about to reach down and pull it toward—
LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THAT THING! At this point, the perspective lines created by the angle of the Demon's arm draw your attention to the row of fangs inside its open maw. The Demon's mouth is buried in the background, but it is still in sharp focus. The Demon is big (we don't know how big because we can't see its whole body) and it's terrifyingly close—close enough to reach out and grab us.
That whole process might have only taken your brain a fraction of a second, but it has a powerful effect on how you perceive the card as a whole. Humans love stories—we've been telling them far longer than history has been recorded—and we'll search out little narratives whenever we can. By getting our eye to go on that evocative trip around the card, Choi allows us to experience the illustration in a new (but reassuringly familiar) way.
My love for this particular piece doesn't stop there, however. It's also worth taking a quick look at Choi's color palette, which makes judicious use of Magic's color pie. This is almost entirely a four-tone card—there's the black of the Demon, the white of the lamb, the green of the grass, and the warm gold of the sunlight and the Demon's eyes. White and green are black's natural enemies on the color wheel, of course, and the gold produced at the point where the Demon's claw is coming down on the lamb's back looks like a subtle mix of white and black with a little yellow thrown in. Neat, right?
This piece also plays a little with expectations we might have developed based on our experiences with previous cards. We've seen this sort of white and green streaming sunlight, pastoral forest composition before—on one of Christine Choi's previous pieces, Opaline Unicorn. If you played during Theros block, you might have fond memories of that card. While To the Slaughter isn't a direct reference to Opaline Unicorn, the composition and style are similar enough that your feelings about that card (I loved it!) might cause your heart to melt a little more at the sight of the lamb about to be swept away.
To the Slaughter's flavor goes beyond art, of course. Let's talk a little about the name. To the Slaughter references an ancient simile: "like lambs to the slaughter." It's unclear where the phrase originated, but it appears twice in the Bible, so it's been with us a long time. It's one of those phrases that almost everyone knows but rarely thinks about.
What does it mean? Well, a simile is a type of metaphor. Lambs represent innocence—just look how cute they are!—so "like lambs to the slaughter" refers to a situation where someone is innocent or naive in the face of danger. Imagine a new player shuffling up his very first deck for a game of Vintage. His opponent casts a turn-one Ancestral Recall, and he takes a moment to examine the card. "Huh, that's interesting. Drawing three cards seems like it might be pretty good!"
And how do we know that To the Slaughter references that particular simile? The title doesn't do it by itself—without the prominence of that little lamb in the foreground, the flavor doesn't work nearly as well. With it, though, the whole piece comes together. To the Slaughter asks you to do a little work—you have to get the reference and match the title with the illustration—but it's a really rewarding feeling once you make that leap.
Oh—and mechanically, the card actually plays just like the simile would suggest! Unless you're running this in a deck with Ovinomancer (which I highly recommend if you are a fan of lamb-related hilarity), To the Slaughter isn't going to be killing too many 0/1 Sheep tokens.
No—the sheep is a stand-in for Jace, or Gideon, or whichever Human, Wolf, Bird, or Homunculus happens to be the most disposable creature on the board at the moment. They aren't going to see their sacrifice coming, either—just minding their own business until wham, sacrificed to appease the Demon, like lambs to the slaughter.
And we haven't talked about the flavor text yet! We haven't met Thaniel before, but we do know a Gatstaf shepherd—he showed up on a card last time we visited Innistrad.
The whole "like lambs to the slaughter" thing is fairly abstract, which is why the flavor text is so important. That (well, that and the giant Demon) is what ties the card specifically to Innistrad, a plane that we know is both pastoral and dangerous. Through this comparison, Innistrad feels a little less distant (because we can associate it with a simile we all know) and the simile feels a little more present (because it exists in the world of Innistrad). That's a pretty great trick, and builds on some of the work done in the original Innistrad. Did you catch that Gatstaf Shepherd's flavor text also references an ancient simile: "like a wolf in sheep's clothing"? It brings the whole thing full circle.
Let's finish up by talking about the delirium aspect of the card. While the mechanic is set to appear on many cards in Shadows over Innistrad, it fits the flavor of this spell particularly well. Delirium is a medical term that refers to a specific type of serious confusion, so the idea here is that you can catch more of your opponent's creatures and planeswalkers unawares if you confuse them enough. The original simile is plural, after all—the fact that you can take multiple "lambs" to the slaughter with a single copy of this card is a neat final flourish.
To the Slaughter's flavor is so rich and varied that I'm pretty sure I'll end up playing it in most of the black Shadows over Innistrad decks I build. It's also powerful enough that I suspect we might see a few copies of it at the upcoming Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad. Regardless, I'm thrilled to have been able to introduce this beautiful and evocative card to the world.