Technically there's a difference between a concept and an art description. A concept describes the flavor of a card, but stops short of actually describing visual details of the piece. A concept might be a written characterization of a card as a Noggle who's trained the hedge magic, for example, whereas the art description might specify the Noggle's surroundings, the details of its staff, its mood and costuming, and any action that he might be performing. The concept describes what it is; the art description describes what it looks like. There is a formal step on the schedule of every Magic set during which all the card concepts are turned into actual art descriptions, ostensibly by the art director. But we we're busy people, and generally collapse those two steps into one. The concepter (Brady Dommermuth in most cases, me in Eventide) has always just written concepts that are full-fledged art descriptions—and then the art director, Jeremy Jarvis, tweaks concepts that he thinks won't turn out well, and translates bits of language into "artspeak" that he knows the artists will respond to.
The fact that the concept writer is writing full art descriptions is important. It means that he or she has to have not just a flavor-oriented mind, but a visual mind as well.
When I stepped up to the Eventide plate, I had already seen lots of art descriptions. If you're a fan of Magic at all, and something tells me you are, then art descriptions are kind of fascinating little animals—they're perfect little bundles of behind-the-scenes Magic content. Every card has this tiny shred of narrative behind it, a script that spells out what some creative team member had on his or her mind during the card's creation. What struck me about many of the concepts I had seen were the choices the writers made in their language.
Word choice is powerful. The artist has the same style guide you do, but beyond that, all he or she has to work from is your art description. You have to be very careful with the way you word things in order to eliminate confusion between the idea in your head and the one in the artist's. Sometimes the words you think you're just throwing in there can have a powerful effect on the end result. With Brady's supervision, I wrote a few concepts for Tenth Edition cards that were getting new art, so as to test my chops. Here's one I wrote for the Tenth Edition art of Evacuation.
Color: Blue spell
Location: Inside a shadowy wizard's library
Action: A grim human wizard holds his or her arm out above a strange five-sided fantasy game-board. The board was crowded with interesting game pieces (carved figures or abstract 3-D domino shapes), but now they're dissolving into thin, blue lightning trails that unravel upward past his or her hand.
Focus: The empty fantasy "chessboard"
Mood: I can wipe the slate clean in the blink of an eye.
Looks sensible, right? I was proud of the slightly abstract twist in the concept—not a bunch of people literally hustling to get onto an airship, but a mage dissolving creatures as if they were his board-game playthings. But there are already some problems with word choice here that could lead to confusion. Brady, monitoring my progress on the concept, pointed out a couple of those issues:
BD: I recommend omitting the wizard from the art description entirely. I also think "lightning" will mislead the artist, and suggest replacing it with "sparkling dust" or something.
In retrospect, the wizard was indeed optional. I'm glad that the artist, Franz Vohwinkel, chose to keep the wizard mostly out-of-frame, because if he hadn't, it could have looked just like a wizard casting a spell. What's wrong with that, you ask? Well, that would be the illustration of a Wizard creature card! Art director Jeremy Jarvis is particularly concerned with making sure there's a strong differentiation between spell art and creature art on cards, which helps the player form a lightning-fast determination of what the card does, and also helps keep cards looking distinct from one another in general. If the Magic art world were nothing but a bunch of pictures of mages casting spells, it would be quite a boring world.
Furthermore, there was the word "lightning." In my head that was very clear—it wasn't about fiery red-aligned lightning, no! The board-game figures would be dissolving into mist, and that mist was, over time, coalescing into thin little streams, each one leading to the wizard's hand—you know, aetheric "lightning." But in the freeze-frame world of card art, there is no "over time." In fact, it's often very hard to determine direction of motion when you only get one "frame" of animation. My intended feeling of the board game figures getting slurped up into the wizard's fingers could have instead looked like him electrocuting the figures, Emperor Palpatine-style. And that wouldn't have been a very good illustration of "unsummon all creatures."
There's more. Take a look at Franz's sketch.
In my head, "five-sided fantasy game-board" meant that it was a flat pentagon. Why didn't I just say "flat pentagon"? My wording helped create this composition, which made the whole piece look a bit like artifact destruction rather than a symbolic mass-unsummoning. Plus, the little game board pieces were a little too abstract—it was actually pretty important that it look like a spell that affected creatures, after all. Thankfully, we got it all worked out, and in the end, Franz made me look really good. One half-point for me, five points for the rest of my team, and eight zillion points for Franz Vohwinkel:
The Enemies of Eventide
Armed with this knowledge of my past missteps, I went into concepting Eventide determined to have no art description language mix-ups. The whole set was in front of me, and even more than that—I had a basic problem to solve.
See, the creative team's whole plan about the Aurora was that it would shift almost all the Lorwyn races from their original two colors into new, allied-color pairs, so that they could have an interesting new identity in Shadowmoor. That worked quite well. But there was this other set, Eventide, where no creature would be in allied colors. Certainly there was room for a few Elves and boggarts and cinderfolk in the mono-colored cards, but the hybrid cards (of which there were plenty) would have to represent a whole new set of creatures.
On top of that, enemy-colored creatures are sort of naturally self-contradictory—coming up with concepts for white-black creatures was about as easy as coming up with conflicted, nuanced, troubled and/or psychopathic novel characters—which is to say, not easy at all. Note that there are still no humans on this plane, so no fair concepting any creatures as regular ol' people with conflicted souls!
Luckily, folklore came to the rescue. The creative team had distilled a lot of the likely creatures from British Isles folklore into a few concept illustrations in the Shadowmoor style guide. Most of the Shadowmoor guide was all about the new look for all the tribal races, but a few precious pages of concepts were set aside for the weirder stuff I'd refer to in Eventide. I set up a grid of all the enemy color pairs, and assigned these wee folklore beasties to each box in the grid.
Shadowmoor style guide concept art by Richard Whitters
Shadowmoor style guide concept art by Richard Whitters
White-Black: Ghosts and Gwyllions
Witchy creatures known as gwyllions cackle with glee over their famously diabolical schemes. Gwyllions prey on travelers who would dare cross through the rotting farmlands and bogs they call their home.
The spirits of Shadowmoor do not rest in peace. You'd be hard-pressed to find an overgrown well or abandoned cottage in Shadowmoor that wasn't haunted by some tormented presence. Light and warmth ward off these restless spirits, but those commodities are hard to come by.
Gwyllions are based on the gwyllion, impish hag creatures of Welsh folklore. (If you're trying to impress someone at a party with your Welsh folklore knowledge, keep in mind that "gwyllion" is actually the plural in Welsh, and an individual would be called a gwyll. Also, what kind of party is that? I mean, really. ...Can I come?) Gwyllions were among the most human of the folklore monsters we studied, being basically a mischievous witch creature. They seemed to fit well in white-black, as a relatively civilized race that nevertheless had a mean streak.
My favorite gwyllion in the set is this one, the hedge-mage. Her -1/-1 counter ability would not be that tough to represent as general meanness and malice, but her make-a-token ability was harder. For her to conjure up a Kithkin would be pretty weird, and plus I didn't want there to be an actual Kithkin creature in the art. So I tried the little Kithkin doll thing.
Color: White and black creature
Location: Blighted fields
Action: Show a "gwyllion," a creature like a stereotypical ugly witch, except about 3 feet tall (see Art ID #111850). She's dressed in heavy rags as if winter is coming, although around her it still looks like dreary autumn. In her claws she's clutching a stuffed doll that looks like a kithkin.
Focus: The gwyllion
Mood: Like a witchy old crone of the swamplands
Notes: LINK to Art ID#111850.
Todd Lockwood nailed it. You can tell he had fun with the little Kithkin doll. By the way she's holding it, I actually felt like it was getting across the dual nature of the card—both anti-creature and pro-creature.
Oh, the "LINK" note there? That referred to an earlier piece of art, Disturbing Plot from Shadowmoor, which was actually an early peek at gwyllions.
Blue-Red: Pucas and Noggles
Pucas are wicked, elusive creatures that enjoy malicious deception. They use their shapeshifting abilities to hide in plain sight, then strike when their quarry's guard is down. It's said that a puca hates its own reflection, so some Elves carry mirrored daggers when in puca territory.
The mule-headed, stubborn creatures known as Noggles are reviled as pranksters and hooligans. But Noggles believe the world belongs to them, which they believe justifies their urge for theft and mischief. If you're missing a precious heirloom, odds are a self-righteous Noggle thief thought it was his all along.
Among my concepting regrets is the number of horselike humanoids in the set, especially in blue-red. There are a number of creatures described as being part horse, part man in the source material, but as creepy as the tales about pucas and Noggles can be, the actual visuals based on those stories just don't turn out all that fantastical or satisfying, perhaps especially against a backdrop of a Multiverse of amazing Magic creatures. Still, we loved the odd Noggle sketch that concept illustrator Richard Whitters drew, and gave it a shot. One of our favorites was again the hedge-mage.
Color: Red and blue creature
Location: Craggy hills, near a river
Action: Show a noggle (short, gray-furred, mule-headed humanoid; see style guide pg. 62) in mage costuming. He has a staff topped in a chunk of amethyst, that burns with a bit of magical fire, like a torch.
Focus: The noggle mage
Mood: Mischievous, sly
Larry MacDougall gave it such excellent proportions—a diminutive body clothed in the garb of a rustic traveler, but with this enormous donkey head that looked odd and charming at the same time. It was appealing and eerie at once, which is everything we wanted the Shadowmoor world to be, and Larry's style naturally complements the vibe of an old storybook illustration.
Black-Green: Swamp Hags and Trows
According to legend, Shadowmoor's swamp hags were once goddesses who watched over woodland marshes, but they fell to earth and became monstrous and grotesque. Now they're barely-sentient fiends who prey on everything they can snatch in their greasy fingers.
Ugly troll creatures known as trows scour the rotting woods near Ashenmoor with only one thing on their minds: meat. They'll feed on rats or bats, but they prefer the tender flesh of the humanoid races—and a trow's sense of smell can detect a wounded Kithkin on the opposite side of the forest.
I was excited to bring trows, wicked little trolls from the folklore of Orkney and Shetland islands off the coast of Scotland, to Magic. They're nasty, they're mean, and they fit perfectly in black-green, the colors of regeneration. We had no reference for trows in the style guide, so Jeremy let artist Warren Mahy design the look of trows for Eventide on the fly.
Color: Black and green creature
Location: Dark, swampy area with leafless trees
Action: Show a human-sized trow, an extremely ugly, troll-like creature of mythology. It has long, grubby black claws.
Focus: The trow
Mood: One of the ugliest creatures of the night
Red-White: Hobgoblins and Duergars
A territorial and almost civilized species of Goblin, the hobgoblin or "hob" is one of Shadowmoor's cleverest denizens. Hobgoblins defend their hillside cottages with modified farm implements like trowel-daggers and pitchforks, and never refuse a call to battle.
The cantankerous, misshapen Dwarves known as duergars lair in deep caverns and mines, scratching out a harsh existence below Shadowmoor's surface. Dour as they may be, duergars are industrious creatures, turning their stubborn routine into a productive mining enterprise.
Red-white was the hardest color combination to find beasties for. The combination of white's sense of honor and community with red's passion and impulsiveness leads one to think of organized, proud-hearted armies like the Boros, which was all wrong for the creepy Shadowmoor setting. But a little card called Goblin Legionnaire led the way. Even monstrous creatures could have a sense of community if a Dominarian Goblin could join up with the Coalition. The key was to think of these creatures' white aspects as territorial (in the case of hobgoblins) and dedicated (in the case of the duergar). Both these races represented cool opportunities to expand existing creature types (Goblin and Dwarf) instead of creating new types.
When we needed a duergar leader, Matt Cavotta got the call.
Color: Red and white creature
Location: Cavern mine
Action: Show a duergar, an ugly little gnome of a creature (like a gruesome, pale-skinned old man, about 3' tall -- see Art ID# 111867). This one is clearly in charge -- he's holding an elaborate pickaxe, and is barking orders to two other duergars, as they charge off to defend the mine.
Focus: The duergar captain
Mood: A leader, but with a Charisma score of 3.
Notes: LINK to Art ID# 111867.
Matt makes it look easy. He brought such style and character to this little fellow with his weird eye placement, his spindly arms and his surprisingly fetching pants. Note how the duergar almost fills the art frame bottom to top, yet the proportions make it clear that he's a short fella.
Again, a Shadowmoor card provided the world's first glimpse at a Magic duergar. Check out Chippy's Mine Excavation:
Green-Blue: Selkies and Kelpies
The eyes of the mysterious selkies see far beyond this benighted world. These seal-like river denizens are masters of magic and divination. Some say they have even glimpsed Shadowmoor's destiny—but if they have, they aren't talking.
Monstrous, unpredictable predators lurk just below the river's surface. Kelpies use mind-clouding magic to lure hapless victims to the river's edge, and lightning-fast jaws to then devour them. Kelpies have the eerie ability to survive injuries that should be lethal.
Concepting green-blue was nothing but fun. The combination of green's monstrous creatures with blue's deviousness was an automatic fit for the Shadowmoor world. The selkies are my personal favorite. The folklore about them is almost universally haunting and tragic: stories about impossible relationships between selkies and humans, and strong symbolism about the sea/land duality of seafaring, fishing cultures. I thought that that wistfulness for the sea was strangely appropriate in a world that only had rivers and streams.
Color: Green and blue creature
Location: On a rock in the middle of a river
Action: Show a selkie, sort of a seal-mermaid from Irish mythology -- see page 62 of the style guide. She has stringy, mossy hair and a mysterious, mystical air to her.
Focus: The selkie
Mood: A knower of secrets from the deep waters
There were many more adventures in concepting Eventide, but I'm at my deadline (and then some), so I'll have to save those tales for another time. Concepting Magic cards is an amazing job, one I am still very much in the process of learning. I'm committed to showing more about it in this column, because I think it's an underexplored yet incredibly crucial part of making the game. Stay tuned!
Letter of the Week
Dear Doug Beyer,
I have noticed a trend when it comes to naming nonbasic lands, and wondered whether or not this is intentional. It seems like the more "reprint-friendly" a land is, the more likely it is to get a name that isn't setting-specific. For example, while the Lorwyn block lands might be tribe-balanced, they aren't color balanced, and they have very setting-specific names like Auntie's Hovel, Wanderwine Hub, Murmuring Bosk, Gilt-Leaf Palace, etc. On the other hand, the Shadowmoor block lands are very color-balanced and have "generic" names (no Shadowmoor-specific nouns) that could be included in future hybrid-themed expansions. They could possibly even be added to future core sets, assuming that one day hybrid cards would be allowed in them.
Another good example of this are the Ravnica rare duals that have generic names, versus the common-card "bouncelands" - which all have the related guild names in them.
Is this intentional? If so, at what stage in the card creation process is this determined: design, development, or is it something you decide on in the hallowed halls of flavor? Perhaps this is a rule you follow when deciding card names?
I would also venture to say that this probably isn't just limited to lands. You & Matt Cavotta have both written about rules for what not to name cards, but neither of you mentioned any guidelines you follow on choosing names. I bet that would be interesting to read about...
Very perceptive, Josh. It's true — the better the chance that a card is reprintable in future sets, the more likely we are to give it a non-setting-specific name. Cards like Karplusan Forest or Caves of Koilos can be problematic for us — they're straightforward and powerful cards, but they're named after places in Dominaria, so they don't make sense showing up in sets like Lorwyn or Shadowmoor. When we give a card a more generic name like Hallowed Fountain or Flooded Grove, it doesn't guarantee that we're going to reprint it someday, but it opens the door. The name is ultimately the creative team's call, but with lots of feedback from design and development about how the card is regarded in terms of gameplay and reprintability. But don't make the mistake of thinking that setting specificity locks a card to its block, however—core and certain expert sets can provide venues for revisiting even cards with names chocked with proper nouns.