With the second draft of Japan Nationals winding down, I took the chance to sit and chat with German artist Nils Hamm. This is a weekend of firsts for Nils, both his first time in Japan, and his first time at a Magic event on this scale. What are his impressions of Japan?
"Well of course I'm seeing it from a really privileged position. I'm staying in a fantastic hotel, eating fantastic food...it's a very specialist viewpoint of a place."
With a day to acclimatize on Friday before the event began in earnest, what did he do with his time off?
"I visited the aquarium and did some sketches for a couple of hours.It's something I do a lot of wherever I am. When I'm at home on weekends I'll often visit my local zoo and do some sketches of the animals there. That's also something I like to do when I'm away."
"There's something extremely peaceful about seeing the animals, and whether I'm in the strangest city, or the furthest place from home, that gives me that sense of peace. Also, it's quite interesting because zoos are all that little bit different around the world."
It isn't just the confined wildlife that's different.
"I get really excited by seeing nature up close, whether that's a type of bird I haven't seen before, or a cockroach on a sidewalk, or even a centipede eating a worm, which I got to see yesterday!"
If you look at Nils' Magic art via Gatherer, you'll find plenty of creatures with a strong insectile theme. Take Pith Driller from New Phyrexia for example. Is that something he's aware of nurturing when he's looking at the ways of nature?
"It's not something I'm conscious of," he says. "I certainly don't look at a bug and think 'that could be the start of a Magic piece somewhere down the line'. It's more a case of, if I have a commission for a piece, and then I suddenly see something and it might trigger a thought for an element of the final picture."
Nils has been working on Magic since Future Sight, and now has more than fifty cards to his name. How did he start?
"I played some role-playing games when I was a kid, so I knew about Magic when it came out. I was already drawing and painting, and I loved the way there were so many different styles of art on the cards. When I got older and knew that I wanted to be an illustrator I started sending portfolios in to Wizards of the Coast - I probably tried about five times! Then the opportunity came to start working on Hecatomb, and I moved from there to Magic."
So what has his first Magic event been like?
"It's been very nice. It's really great to meet so many people who appreciate what you do. The artist life can be very solitary, so it's great to have contact with so many people."
There's no doubt that Nils' most famous piece of Magic art is busy tearing up the top tables this weekend - it's Grave Titan. What does he remember about creating the art for this mythic powerhouse?
"I told the art director Jeremy Jarvis that I wanted to do some more cheerful pieces. I had done a lot of black cards, which I find pretty easy to do, but it's also draining, because you have to focus on the dark stuff, and I was churning out Zombie after Zombie after Zombie.
"Jeremy gave me a few lighter pieces to do, and that was easier anyway in Lorwyn because of the theme of the set. Then I got Grave Titan - that wasn't just dark, it was super-dark. I really wanted to do it - Zombies coming out of his stomach sounded like so much fun.
"The other thing that I remember is that I had just visited a very close friend out in California. He's an artist too, and works as a concept artist for many Hollywood studios. He's really good, and always teaches me a few new tricks. Grave Titan was the first piece I did after my California vacation, and I was able to try out some new things with Grave Titan. It looks like it came out pretty well!"
It certainly did.