The Art of Elves

Posted in Feature on August 20, 2008

By Doug Beyer

Senior creative designer on Magic's creative team and lover of writing and worldbuilding. Doug blogs about Magic flavor and story at

FUN FACT: The spelling of the term "Llanowar," now known as the name of a forest in Dominaria where a proud race of elves lives, was probably inspired by the Welsh language. In Welsh, the pronunciation of the double L is difficult to describe in text, but it's sort of a whispered, percussive hiss sound with the tongue held in position to pronounce the letters "t" and "l" together. I kind of love that sound and consider it to be awesome. Using that pronunciation to say "Llanowar" would be beautiful, but the accepted pronunciation in Magic basically treats the double L as if it were a single L, hence simply: "LAN-oh-war."

By the way! Today? Elves. Medium? Magic art. Let's go. Spartans, prepare for some pointy-eared glory.

Kick us off, Kev.

Elves embody a host of physiological and psychological characteristics, and believe you me, this melange of defining attributes goes way beyond ear shape. Can Magic art take us to all of them? Surely we can find the physical differences between various elves there—the mohawks and face paint on Llanowar elves, the horns and hooves on Lorwyn / Shadowmoor elves. But you'd be surprised at how many elvish societal roles and cultural values you can find portrayed in Magic's art. Most elvish art portrays the woodsy ones in one of a few different ways, and we'll go through all of them today. That is correct: I have identified all of the categories of elf art. All of them, exhaustively! There is no need for further scholarship on the matter! The matter is solved. Let's get on with it.

Elves as Protectors of the Forest

More than almost any other race in the Multiverse, elves have their identity sculpted by their environment. An elf's life is tangled up in the forest from cradle to grave—it's his home, his livelihood, and his mission. Even the merfolk can't claim the elves' dedication to their natural surroundings, as the elves combine a reliance on the forest's gifts with an explicit and abiding devotion to all of nature.

Elves really, really like their trees.

The best way to get an elf to show his true colors is to threaten the forests. Move into their territory with intent to harm, and the elvish façade of a race of pastoral frolickers with good cheekbones will crumble away faster than you can say "Greenpeace with longswords."

Moonglove Winnower
Moonglove Winnower art by William O'Connor
Farhaven Elf
Farhaven Elf art by Brandon Kitkouski

Our buddy Matt brought us this absorbing look at an elf shaman who's deeply in touch with the fauna of the woods, particularly the spirit of the bear.

In Lorwyn, elves ride cervins. In Norwood, they ride moose. Rebecca Guay might make this scene look beautiful and serene, but do not get on the business end of those antlers.

Norwood Riders
Norwood Riders art by Rebecca Guay

What better herald of the elvish connection to nature than Jim Murray's rendition of Gaea's Herald?

Gaea's Herald
Gaea's Herald art by Jim Murray

Note that elves defend their turf whether it's a literal grove of trees or not. In Ravnica, where there are no open areas of wilderness, elves inhabit and protect the high spires and hanging gardens of that vast city. In post-apocalyptic Dominaria, the beaten-down, emaciated elves defend whatever patches of moss or fungus they can find to call home.

Elves as Master Warriors

Even when the woods per se are not at stake, elves don't sit idly by while battle is afoot. Elves have a reputation for being gifted fighters, either in armies that swarm out of the trees led by lords of the forest, or as heroic individuals whose combat prowess outstrips even the legends told about them.

FUN FACT: For Duel Decks: Elves vs. Goblins, I wrote two bits of narrative to go on either side of the strategy insert that came with the decks. Here's the one that appeared on the Elf side, that I think embodies the "Elves as Warriors" aesthetic.

"Loyal kin, elders, siblings. I cannot welcome you with a wish of peace today.

"As many of you know, during last night's wildfeast, the goblin tribes staged a cowardly attack on our heartwood groves. Dozens of worthy elves perished, including the champion Lledala. The heartwood's fate is still in question. The trees may yet survive the damage, but today our druids' faces are grim with doubt.

"I know many of you have deep roots in the groves affected, and I know that your hearts ache with injustice. Even hours after the attack, you feel that we have not acted with sufficient speed or vigor. You long for a chance to repay our grave debt to the goblins in battle.

"Today, that battle is joined.

"The goblins are massing in a valley near here. Today we show them the folly of their actions. I ask that you remember our commitment to the flourishing of all life—by slaking the earth's thirst for goblin blood. May your footsteps sound the thunder of Gaea and your steel impart her fury!"
—Baelon, ambush commander of Llanowar

Here's the alternate art of Ambush Commander that appeared on the pointy-eared side of Elves vs. Goblins.

The elves of Lorwyn consider the mazelike stretch of forest known as Wren's Run to be the finest hunting ground in the world. Before it became Shadowmoor's haunted Raven's Run, the imperious elves honed their slaying skills there.

In Shadowmoor, the elves' skills in combat ceased to be a matter of destroying eyeblights and became a matter of survival. Jason Chan's Wilt-Leaf Liege is emblematic of elvish beauty, grace, and vulnerability even when charging headlong into battle. Compare with the grim determination of William O'Connor's piece, used on the Shadowmoor Elf Warrior token. Two flavors of awesome that taste great together.

Shadowmoor Elf Warrior Token art by William O'Connor

Speaking of mounted elves charging into battle, I've always loved Donato Giancola's Tolsimir Wolfblood piece. There's something about the traditional "elf ranger with bow" look to him, combined with the distinctive Magic twist of Tolsimir Wolfblood's claws digging into the cobblestones of Ravnica, that tweaks my fantasy-goob fandom.

Radha is scary. Keldon blood will do that to you. Does that make her inappropriate for a list of elvish warriors? I don't know. I figure the smart money's on the girl holding the head of her decapitated foe in her hand.

Elves as Masters of Magic

Elves are in touch with the land, which means they're in touch with mana and magic. They both satisfy and defy expectation in that regard, sometimes appearing as the traditional elf mage in full wizardly regalia, sometimes bucking the trend as a down-and-dirty shaman of some grungy death cult.

I'm basically sold whenever we come out with a piece of an elf conjuring magic. The scale of the elf in Seedcradle Witch illustrates how exposed the noble elves are in Shadowmoor.

Seedcradle Witch
Seedcradle Witch art by Steven Belledin

The Viridian elves of Mirrodin are devoted to opposing the artificial forces of that metallic world. I love the contradiction of how they have a bit of metal in them (as all creatures on Mirrodin do), yet fight for the destruction of artifice.

Viridian Acolyte
Viridian Acolyte art by D. Alexander Gregory

The Golgari of Ravnica are the guild of life and death. The Hungarian team of Boros and Szikszai nailed the vibe of the elf as shamanic death-cultist.

Golgari Guildmage
Golgari Guildmage art by Zoltan Boros & Gabor Szikszai

There's an almost anime feel to this elf piece, set in the destroyed forests of Dominaria. I dig the style, and love the sense of a mote of hope surrounded by tragedy.

Llanowar Augur
Llanowar Augur art by Tsutomu Kawade

This is one of the most powerful pieces of an elf wielding magic that Magic has ever had. Hats off to Brandon Kitkouski.

Oracle of Nectars
Oracle of Nectars art by Brandon Kitkouski

Exotic Elves

Life would be pretty dull if we saw the same Orlando Bloom-style elves year after year. Luckily, since Magic loves traveling from world to world and loves elves, we're guaranteed to see some elvish oddities. Check out these pieces that push the Elvish Envelope (which sounds like a green spell to me—or maybe a tribal artifact?).

It's hard not to start with the Simic here. Momir Vig, Simic Visionary sets the tone for this guild of progressive-minded bio-researchers.

Momir Vig, Simic Visionary
Momir Vig, Simic Visionary art by Zoltan Gabor & Boros Szikszai

The creative team knew how emblematic the guildmages would be for Ravnica block, so special care was taken to make sure the illustrations were knock-your-socks-off hot. Check out the detail here on Simic Guildmage. (Aleksi, paint more for us. Please.)

Simic Guildmage
Simic Guildmage art by Aleksi Briclot

In the Onslaught storyline, elves grew more and more feral and treelike as powerful energies radiated out from the Mirari. Check out how this elf's skin has become slightly green, and how his hair has turned into branchlike protrusions.

Here's another shot of the Mirari-warped elf look, this time as of that block's final set, Scourge, where the transformation is complete. ELF SMASH!

As I mentioned before, all creatures on the metal world of Mirrodin have metallic elements built into their bodies—even the elves. And yet, there's clearly still pride in this guy's heart. Stand tall, chosen hero of Tel-Jilad.

Tel-Jilad Chosen
Tel-Jilad Chosen art by Matthew D. Wilson

Elf avatars are the soul of elfhood, abstracted in the direction of the infinite. Mark Zug, bring us home.

Heedless One
Heedless One art by Mark Zug

Oh, okay, one last thing. FUN FACT: There are elves in Naya.

Art by Steve Prescott

Letter of the Week

Planar_OverlayDear Doug Beyer,

So, something about this constant plane-hopping bothers me. OK, so each block we get a new setting - that makes sense. But why a new plane?

Planes aren't necessarily planets, but generally they're supposed to be big, right? Like world-sized big. And the thing about a world is, you don't need to leave it to get a new setting. You just need to go somewhere else on it.

Now obviously you need to go to a new plane when you want an entirely new cosmology, as with Kamigawa or Lorwyn, but even then, I have to think, these planes aren't really being treated as worlds. I mean, an entire planet of feudal Japan? It's kind of ridiculous, no? When you have a whole world, it should have a lot more diversity than that.

Now, you had Dominaria, which was supposed to be two-and-half times the size of Earth, if I recall, so you wouldn't run out of different settings on it. But then came the various apocalypses, and, well... that's the problem right there. Taking all of Dominaria and treating it as one setting. Putting the entire world in danger. That's the thing - world-sized conflicts don't really make sense. They're too big. I guess old-style planeswalkers can manage them, but it's still ridiculous. Without recent technology (or really good magic), nobody on a world should have any clue what's going on in most of it, aside from those faraway places there are occasionally ships or trade caravans from.

Basically, I'd like to see some worlds that are treated as, well, worlds, rather than one-use throwaway settings. Ones that are actually heterogeneous, you know? Not necessarily Dominaria-for-every-block style, but just show us a sensible-setting-sized bit at a time, let us know other areas only through their interaction with where we're focused on, then maybe later return and do things from a different point of view, where the mysterious outsiders of that previous block are now the focus, the previous focus are now mysterious outsiders, and there are even *more* mysterious outsiders that are too far away for the previous focus to have even heard of, except as legends and rumors, sort of thing.


This is a fantastic email, Harry. Thanks for taking the time to send it in.

With a few caveats, I'm on your side here. Logic dictates that entire worlds should not have the same geography or culture throughout. World-scale conflicts should not be possible except in extreme circumstances. Information flow in fantasy worlds should be, by and large, difficult. I care a lot about this level of world realism. Making decisions that bring the planes of Magic closer to a fully and realistically fleshed-out universe is the true artistry of Magic world-building.

Furthermore, we will return to previously-established planes. It is in the plan. You're right that there is plenty of room left over on many of Magic's planes to explore more deeply in a future block—and not just Dominaria.

Extraplanar_LensThe caveats to my agreement with you, Harry, have to do with what I call the "craft" of world-building. Craft is the skill of managing the practicalities of a creative endeavor. I almost hesitate to use the word "practicalities" because it has such a derogatory connotation in some circles, but I don't mean it as a negative thing at all. Art needs craft the way a building needs a structural system. A piece of art without good craftsmanship is meaningless, inaccessible drivel that falls apart before it does its job.

The craft of world-building dictates that worlds should be understandable and differentiable from other worlds. You can sum up Mirrodin in two words—"metal world" (and half of that is just the "world" part!). This allows our minds to latch onto the essential characteristics of the setting quickly. It also helps us differentiate that world from the others that have gone by—"metal world" is distinct from "feudal Japan world" and "city world" and "idyllic storybook world" and "five shards world" (Shards of Alara previews will be here before you know it!) and all the rest. Our minds need that. If every world is so intricate and diverse that they all take a paragraph to describe, then it takes our minds a long time to process what's going on in the world. Duplicating the complexity of Earth's cultures every year is not only impossible, it's impractical—our brains would not know what to do with that kind of depth. The craft of fantasy demands those kinds of theme-oriented worlds. (I want to write more on the craft of Magic creative—someday I'll get to that.)

There's also the nonzero pressure to use wholly new settings to:

  • keep Magic feeling fresh,
  • emphasize the scope and breadth of the Magic multiverse,
  • provide lots of new words and concepts for cards (which could be accomplished without entirely new worlds, I grant), and
  • keep planeswalkers extraordinary and special by giving them many worlds to 'walk to.

But you're not asking for fractal-like complexity, Harry—you're just asking for us to explore another element or two of existing worlds. A new continent or district or civilization on a previously visited plane. A deeper dimension layered underneath Magic's settings. As long as we can find a way to do that while respecting the responsibilities of craft, I think you are on to something.

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