Once upon a time, there were a series of meetings.
That's how worldbuilding begins on the Magic Creative team. A group of people lock their focus on a whiteboard full of indecipherable notes and charts as they take turns passionately shouting ideas toward the creative lead who wields the only working dry erase marker within a radius of 100 feet. Some are sketching things. Others furiously click notes into laptops.
Worldbuilding meetings are chaos, and I love every minute of it.
Throne of Eldraine began its life simply as "Arthurian legend–world," where knights and legendary creatures reigned. Then Dominaria came to life, and everyone was set to scrap the idea for fear of flying too close to its sun. It was only pulled out of the bin when Mark Rosewater got people re-energized about the idea of a fairy-tale set—an old idea that seemed ripe again when placed in a setting based loosely around Middle Ages Europe. This would ultimately be the twist that gave the set its core identity.
The story unfolded as two houses, Design and Creative, agreed to disagree many times. In the early days of design and worldbuilding, there was much squabbling about everything. Which of the two themes should take precedence—Arthurian legends or fairy tales? How was another "high fantasy" set not just a repeat of Dominaria? What was the acceptable level of juvenile nursery rhyme imagery versus Grimms' horror? Fun Fact: The two teams arguing early on was the true inspiration for the two-sided conflict between the chivalrous courts and unpredictable wilds in the worldbuilding.
So perhaps my team's biggest worldbuilding goal was creating a visual palette loosely inspired by Arthurian-era Europe, against which individual fairy-tale card designs could be remarkable. It was to be grown-up, but with a tolerance for a huge range of tones, including lightheartedness.
Today, I have a sample of card previews that touch on the lighter side of top-down fairy tales in Throne of Eldraine.
One reason for such an intense tonal shift was to provide a respite from the gritty battle scenes of War of the Spark. Original worldbuilding co-lead Kelly Digges and I looked to many paintings by Edmund Blair Leighton, Waterhouse, and Edwin Austin Abbey for inspiration. Along with Shakespeare and Greek myth, Arthurian legend is a top theme from many of those late 19th-century artists (and they are not-so-secretly some of my own biggest influences). Their Victorian take on Arthurian legend also inspired cards like this by Howard Lyon—Beloved Princess.
Color: White-aligned creature
Location: Some intimidating place in the Wilds
Action: A young princess in a beautiful gown strolls through the Wilds, unaware of the danger of her surroundings. Maybe she's entranced by a flitting bird or butterfly, unaware that she's crossing a raging river on an old log, or maybe we can see the silhouettes of dangerous elven hunters lurking in the trees behind her.
Focus: The princess
Mood: Innocent and pure
I added a note for Howard that this was, essentially, a teenager texting instead of paying attention to traffic while crossing a busy street. All the danger in the piece is a second read, and much of it came from Howard Lyon's imagination, as artists had some more freedom to create their own characters and scenes in Eldraine.
One of my art direction sub-goals was to make the Eldraine world guide slimmer and focus more on motifs and materials rather than examples to be repeated by rote. We had recently surveyed the hundred-plus artists we'd worked with regularly in 2017 to hear directly from them what would make them happier, and one of the biggest anecdotal responses we got was "we want more freedom in the art descriptions!" So, between Modern Horizons and Throne of Eldraine, there was a noticeable uptick in the words "take inspiration from," "maybe," and "up to you" appearing in art descriptions, like this one for Donato Giancola's True Love's Kiss.
Color: White spell
Location: Up to you
Action: Show a princess of Ardenvale leaning down to give a chaste kiss to a statue—a prince who has been turned to stone. We see pure white magic spreading out from where she kissed him, turning the stone of the petrified prince back into flesh.
Focus: The kiss
Mood: A curse reversed by the power of love
During development, I was told this would be the first-ever Magic card printed with the word "Love" in its title. Lovestruck Beast is also in the set, and I'm not sure which came first, but I'll trust the Design team.
There were also more straightforward interpretations of known fairy tales. Part of the allure of Throne of Eldraine during playtesting was the ability to mash together popular stories. Instead of us doing it for players through the creative, the gameplay itself was the vehicle for mixing up characters and scenarios.
Artifacts were some of the most straightforward one-to-one depictions from the stories, again for those storied card interactions. Here we see a reference to Pinocchio as a wooden boy, and the spinning wheel from Sleeping Beauty (though, it's weaving magical butterflies).
And then there's this guy
Out of 3,000 illustrations and counting, this remains one of the most divisive pieces in a set I've ever commissioned. The card Gingerbrute was designed extremely early on, and we decided that while Puss in Boots was too far into juvenile nursery rhyme territory, this was exactly the line for how juvenile we were willing to go. I asked Vince Proce to illustrate it because—and I mean this as a compliment—he has a particular way of making things both charming and terrifying at the same time.
Doug Beyer's art description for this doughy jerk provides some additional flavor:
Color: Artifact Creature
Location: A cottage, maybe a kitchen near a wood-fired bakery oven
Action: This is a vicious, speedy little golem that happens to be made out of gingerbread in some way. It's like if someone tried to bake a happy little cookie, but the thing that busted out of the oven was a fierce, two-foot-tall, half-bipedal molasses-bread monster, bent on chaos. Maybe it has overlapping scales of gingerbread and beady little eyes of dark licorice. Show it dashing through a kitchen or bounding away from a rustic cottage, kicking up a clatter as it runs. Maybe in the background we see the bewildered chef who gave the monster-cookie its life.
Focus: The golem
Mood: A gingerbread menace
I truly loved this piece for its ridiculous outlier weirdness. Others felt differently. I'm guessing some people just weren't hungry.
Anyway, I had seven cards to preview, so I thought this would be the most fitting finale.
Color: Red creature
Location: In a dwarven mine
Action: Show a male bearded dwarf marching gruffly through the mine with a pickaxe. In the background, we'd like to see six more dwarves (a mix of male and female, please) throughout the scene—maybe they're mining, climbing, sticking out of mine-holes, pushing wheelbarrows, etc.—for a total of seven dwarves in the piece.
Focus: There should be one main focal dwarf.
Mood: Industrious and stern.
Seven Dwarves is one of the best examples of a top-down fairy-tale card that could only exist in this set. Those who remember Triskaidekaphobia from Shadows over Innistrad will know this gag, but beyond there being seven dwarves depicted in this illustration, there's seven of
When you're done counting sevens of things, stay tuned for more Throne of Eldraine previews!