Before, During, and After

Posted in Feature on December 12, 2011

By Matt Cavotta

Matt has worn many wizard hats in the 18 years he has worked on Magic—art-mage, logomancer, lightning bard, and (of course) Planeswalker.

When I asked (then) editor Kelly Digges if I could steal some word count on the website, he thought of a of a nifty place to put me: Flashback Week. His angle: flash back to when these pages served up a particular blend of flavor-related babble each week. The blend I speak of was that of Taste the Magic, a column that shifted the focus from metagame and mana costs to Magic's world of art and story—all woven together with yarns spun by a gushing goob (that would be me). The old Taste the Magic message is well covered now by Doug Beyer and the rest of the creative team over at Savor the Flavor. But I've found a realm of the Magic flavor Multiverse that is not often explored here. I'm going to give you the usual taste of Vorthosian eye candy, but with the twist of doing so without focusing on cards or Magic art.

Ways to Bring Magic to the People

Cards are the primary way in which we all consume Magic. Through cards we take in the art, read tasty bits of text, and experience the connections between flavor and game play. Powerful stuff. But the Magic message takes more forms than just the 2.5" x 3.5" herald. From tiny expansion symbols to massive event banners, everything exists to support Magic's spell-slingin', planeswalkin' fantasy vibe. Our team of talented in-house designers as well as a host of ongoing design partners and contractors use all of the tricks of their trade to hint at, hype, or hammer home Magic flavor in every nook and cranny of visual material we produce.

Before you ever get to draw your opening seven, Magic's visuals give you the opportunity to begin experiencing its rich fantasy feel. Even after you slow-grind your opponent to zero with a shambling horde of Zombies, Magic visuals let you continue to appreciate its flavor. I'm going to give you a pre- and postgame walkthrough in which we stop to regard all the well-crafted designs that make Magic an even deeper visual experience.

But before we do that. . .

Ways to Bring People to the Magic

To put some context around the images we're going to explore, I'd like to talk briefly about the folks who design them. For many years, Magic's graphic design was handled almost entirely by an internal design team. The benefit of an internal team is that everyone has double strike—they're both talented and immersed in the nuances of the brand.

Magic has been growing. We're making more varied Magic experiences than ever before, and we're venturing out into media that is outside of our team's wheelhouse. This means we have to seek out expert designers outside of the Mizzium walls of Wizards. In those cases, they're selected for their expertise, and then the first order of business is to dunk them into a vat of thick, gooey Magic. Coaching up Magic muggles is reeaaallly difficult. It's hard to break people of their hard-cast expectations that Magic is just like every other olde medieval fantasy game, with tin-can knights saving helpless maidens and battle-hardened dwarves with flagons in hand. There is no little booklet called Dynamic Fantasy Brand with a Modern Social Heart, a Contemporary Visual Style, and a High Standard of Quality for Dummies.

Danger! Danger! Come out of the safety of your holes!

As Magic's senior creative art director, part of my job to do this coaching. (Did I mention that this is a difficult task?) So recently I asked myself, "Are there any pre-existing double-strike designers that don't need the coaching?" My gut says yes. My gut says some of them are reading these words right now. Somewhere out there a skilled visual designer is taking a break from his or her craft to read about Tuktuk the Explorer, or to check World Championship decklists. That designer, folks, has a weapon in each hand!

At the end of this article I'll explain how the double strikers among you can come out of the safety of your holes!

Pregame Warm-Up

We're starting our pregame walkthrough at a hobby gaming convention. We shuffle, elbow to elbow, among a giddy herd of gaming enthusiasts when the thought hits: "I want to play some Magic." Is it random? Is it mind control? Specifically speaking, it's mind sculpting. The thought hit us because above the sea of heads, we've caught a glimpse of a ten-foot-tall Jace Beleren.

This bit of design collaboration involved the work of two staff designers and a whole team of external model-building experts and trade show designers. One of our staff designers is a CAD model builder and the other is a product/industrial designer. They worked closely with me to make sure Jace sported the proper costuming, coloring, attitude, and magical flair.

The sculpture was designed to be modular, standing on a base that could be changed out in the future. The base is an important element, as it raises the figure up above the crowd.

Sometimes Magic flavor is not created from scratch, but is translated from illustration into another form by designers. In this case, their attention to detail and their interest in properly representing a beloved character have won our attention. Now we want to play some Magic.

We weave through the crowd past the heavy gaze of the Mind Sculptor and into the Magic booth to see what new stuff is on display. We know we want to walk the planes, but we are not yet settled on where to duel. Zendikar? Mirrodin? Then we see red and get a taste for blood.

It's Innistrad's visceral red packaging that grabs us. Its message is delivered like a Hitchcock film—deftly, but without gore: "Blood was spilt here, and more than once."

Magic's graphic designers have to be measured in their show of Magic flavor. Designs must be simple and flexible enough to translate across many forms and media. They must also deliver flavor without hogging the spotlight. With simplicity, subtlety, and suggestion, graphic design plays the role of the E Street Band backing up the Boss, Magic art.

The red we've been captivated by comes in russet swirls reminiscent of blood in water, combined with a stained-morgue-floor texture. That basic template informs designs of all sorts, its palette and texture serving as backdrop, its blood-basin circle serving as a framework for artwork or other messaging. Together, they hit just the right amount of "Gothic horror" to give us a hint of what we're in for, but leaving enough room for Magic to create its own horror vision beyond the usual lycanthrope vs. sangrophage gag.

All of this juicy information can be gleaned from the handiwork of a skilled and invested designer. You might think I'm making up a bunch of hooey about what amounts to a red box, but I assure you this is all stuff that I talked about with Jino, our double-strike designer who bled out the visual feel for Innistrad. This level of thought and immersion is what it takes to satisfy the sharp and discerning Magic fan.

All that blood—now we're itchin' to draft Vampire decks.

So we skip over to the gaming hall and pick up three packs of Innistrad each. We have to wait a few minutes— Josh took off to buy a boat of curly fries. While we wait, we shuffle through our packs. Though the art is different, they are uniform in their layout: logos at top and bottom with the art centered in the circular "blood basin" frame. The uniformity is purposeful, as it helps us know at a glance that we're holding packs from one set or block. When Dark Ascension comes out, you'll see the same layout. This is especially helpful when we're about to draft.

So why the circle as a defining shape? The blood basin? Surely the vampires on Innistrad have more fanciful tastes in sustenance storage systems. Look at the booster pack above on the right. The circle is also there as a subtle nod to a very powerful horror genre image, that of the full moon. When looking at the image of a werewolf in front of a large, shining circle it's hard not to think of the full moon.

Upon closer inspection, you can see that the moon motif is echoed subtly in the logo as well, where a sweeping curve breaks the hard, gothic verticality of the letters.

The funny thing about this logo embellishment is that it came about by happenstance. Originally, the logo had three arcing "slashes" across it, as if clawed by a werewolf. We felt like that was too heavy-handed, so we reduced it to two. At that point, an onlooker asked if it was meant to evoke the moon. We lied and said, "Yes." Then Jino slinked away to adjust the design.

We're knee-deep in horror already and we haven't even torn into a single pack. Ah, here's Josh. We are not surprised to see the fries drenched in ketchup. Perhaps he's got blood on his mind as well. There is power and purpose even in the supporting visuals that are there just to get us from point A to point play.

We draft. Josh punishes us all.

Postgame Celebration

Josh pounds us in such convincing fashion that he makes a great shift in his Magic fandom. He was a pyromaniacal Chandra fan until he made us all pay with Garruk Relentless and his alter ego, Garruk, the Veil-Cursed. Now he's all beastmaster. But he doesn't know which sets contain Garruk cards. Some even have the same name. Ultimately, he cruises Gatherer on his iPhone and we see these telltale graphics:

Expansion symbols. They're on cards and products to help us identify their set of origin. But they're more than just a bar code. As it turns out, flavor can be wrung out of even these smallest of Magic graphics.

Symbol Status
A rare case of the tables turning, when graphic design informs Magic art.

Part of the challenge of graphic design is to say as much as possible in the simplest way possible, and under very particular parameters. I can't think of a Magic message more demanding in its parameters than the expansion symbol. A designer must infuse recognizable fantasy flavor into an expansion while also fulfilling these tough requirements:

  • Hold up at about 4 millimeters high and 8 millimeters wide. This gets tricky, as designs with fine detail will deteriorate at that size.
  • Can't look too much like any other expansion or game symbol. (This gets harder with every set as certain shapes and gags are taken off the table.)
  • Has to work in solid black, as well as in silver, gold, and orange-red.
  • Has to be a scalable, vector-based design (because sometimes it will also be seen really big).

In the case of the expansion symbols we turned up, designers have deftly incorporated flavor into three elegant little designs.

The Innistrad symbol is thought to be a Gothic crown, or a bit of Liliana's headdress. Both of these are fine interpretations—each one carrying appropriate flavor for a Gothic horror set theme. The real story, however, is that this symbol is made from two outward facing, overlapping, stylized herons. Because a heron-like shape can be seen in Innistrad's silvery moon, the heron has taken on a mythology of its own and has become a symbol of the lost archangel Avacyn.

The Lorwyn expansion symbol is a tone-setter. Very plainly, it's a leaf—conveying a vibe of low-tech, woodsy simplicity that befits a storybook plane like Lorwyn. But some folks might not see the shape that way. Some folks, like, say, John J. Rambo, might see it more like this:

Though I am known to do so, I am not just foisting 80s movie references for the fun of it. The Lorwyn symbol was designed to have a little sense of the rose's thorn, to put an edge on the storybook vibe. Lorwyn may be a land of quaint folk and woodland fae, but when cornered, those little buggers will not hesitate to draw first blood.

The Duel Decks: Garruk vs. Liliana expansion symbol is an interesting intersection of the Innistrad and Lorwyn symbols. It is clearly not a knife, nor is it a heron. It is, however, an elegant combination of a leaf and Liliana's headband. As leaves go, this one is aptly blocky and masculine, while the headband is graceful and sharp.

Here's a link to an old Ask Wizards that gives a simple definition of what's going on in about forty expansion symbols.

We follow him through the hall as he hunts for binder-bearers to trade for some Garruk cards. He finds a kid with a trove of good cards, including Garruk Wildspeaker and Garruk, Primal Hunter. He looks from one to the other and back again, trying to figure out which one best captured his new, savage play style. The kid ends up helping Josh make his decision—not with information on relative card rarity or tournament strength, and not with suggestions on devastating card combos. Nay, the kid does nothing but lower the binder to clear the line of sight to the kick-ass Planeswalker T-shirt he's wearing.

This particular design was created by some freshly-trained double-strike designers. These out-of-house designers impressed us with their quick understanding of Planeswalker coolness. The design is working on multiple wavelengths, as it first throws up a striking, iconic graphic that is somewhat evocative of a superhero crest. The design hits that geek-cool vibe of fantasy, but modern and fashionable.

Then, like a secret telepathic nudge, it sends its Planeswalker message to Magic fans. The Planeswalker card's loyalty box is positioned like the superhero crest, and it is aggressively affected by the Planeswalker's magical power. In this case, the raking claw of one of Garruk's summoned beasts. And just for punctuation, it's got Garruk's starting loyalty number (which happens to be the same in his three incarnations so far). Strong!

The kid showed us to the booth that was selling the sweet duds. After donning his Wildspeaker threads, Josh struts off to through the crowd, content in having had a rich fantasy experience before, after, and, of course, during games of Magic.

Come Out of the Safety of Your Holes!

We've always had more illustration work than we could possibly handle in-house. Because of this, artists often send in illustration portfolios looking to land freelance gigs painting the denizens of Dominaria, Kamigawa, Zendikar, and elsewhere. We've reached a similar point with regard to our design workload, so I'd like to open the door for the submission of design portfolios as well. If you read this article and found yourself thinking you, too, could elegantly fold fantasy flavor into Magic's non-illustrated visuals, we want to hear from you. If you find yourself with a passion for Magic in your right hand, and expertise in any of the following areas in your left, it may be time to come out of the safety of your hole:

  • Font design
  • Logo/Icon design
  • Graphic design for print
  • Graphic design for digital
  • Graphic design for apparel
  • Packaging design
  • Display/environment design
  • Product design
Don't be afraid to show us your chops.

Our in-house battalion is currently at full strength, so right now we're only looking for freelance, contract design help. If you're interested in potential design work for Magic: The Gathering, please submit up to ten PDF samples that each fit within an 11" x 17" horizontal format to, using "MTG Graphic Design" as the subject. Designs do not need to be Magic- or fantasy-themed to be considered, though a show of mastery in either of these arenas would be a definite feather in the cap.

We have many battles yet to be fought, and I look forward to seeing who's sharp enough to join the fray.

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