From the Ground Up

Posted in Feature on March 21, 2011

By Scott McGough

Before there was Mirrodin, there was Karn, its creator. And before there was Karn, there was the planeswalker Urza, who created Karn. While Mark Rosewater explains how the world of Mirrodin took shape, this article from The Duelist #32 paints a surprisingly similar picture of the worldbuilding done even further back in Magic's past.

What's more, the threat of Phyrexia looms even here (and the Urza's Saga Conceptual team describes the origin of their uniquely hideous brand of monstrosity). Through Karn, Mirrodin was entangled with Phyrexia from well before it even existed.


Kelly Digges
Daily MTG Editor

When a Magic set gets released, what's the first thing you look at?

If you answered anything but "the art," you're either: a) a tournament player who scans the spoiler list for abusable cards as soon as it hits the Web; or b) a big fat liar. It's academic—you need a few days and a playtest marathon before you can fully appreciate the cool new rules and game mechanics, but the art's appeal is immediate.

Magic routinely employs dozens of the finest fantasy artists in the business to bring the worlds of Dominia to life, one scene and one card at a time. Each individual card's art must contribute to the set's visual character overall, as well as delight and amaze on its own. With such diverse talents as Paolo Parente and Heather Hudson working on individual scenes, however, keeping the whole show consistent requires a strong director.

Or, in this case, several of them.

As Magic's backstory began to cohere around the adventures of the Weatherlight, Magic's Conceptual team was created and charged with maintaining the look and feel of the art in every new Magic set. When development of the Urza's Saga expansion began, Art Director Matt Wilson and Creative Director Chaz Elliott worked closely with Continuity Manager Pete Venters and Conceptual team artists Mark Tedin, Tony Waters, Dave Allsop, and Brian "Chippy" Dugan (no, I won't tell you why he's called that). This team of directors faced the challenge of a set whose story spanned thousands of miles, thousands of years, and 350 cards. Before you could see any of the cards, the card artists had to see what the Conceptual team created.

The World Starts Turning

Elliott took the first steps toward nailing Urza down. He instructed Venters to follow a "gut instinct" to back up from the Weatherlight's current troubles and fill in some of the history behind the Legacy. Having worked in Continuity since Alliances, Venters fully understood the structure imposed on story by the requirements of a card set: each color of mana had to be fairly represented.

He proposed tying each color to a distinct and separate environment (a forest for green, an island for blue, and so on) to showcase each color. The story could then follow Urza as he pursued an agenda that led him through each environment. This would both propel the story forward and allow each color to maintain its own unique flavor.

"Most of the realms were easy choices," recalls Venters. "Argoth (green) was the kickoff point of his tale, Tolaria (blue) was his base of operations, and Phyrexia (black) was the home of his eternal enemies." Shiv was chosen because it was the largest source of red mana on the planet (not to mention the home of a certain breed of dragon). Serra at the height of her powers was chosen to represent white.

Once this structure was in place, the team prepared a basic tour for each environment. Venters and Wilson then presented the package to the conceptual artists who were assigned to develop each realm. This began, as Wilson puts it, "a 'run wild' sort of thing."

Argoth – It's Worth Killing

How do you put your heart and soul into creating a lush forest paradise when you know from the outset it's going to die a violent death? The Argoth forest was doomed the moment it was created: The principals and the outcome of the cataclysmic final battle of the Brothers' War were documented as far back as the Antiquities expansion. The true measure of Dominaria's loss, however, wasn't made clear until Conceptual Artist Tony Waters brought it to life for the Urza's Saga expansion.

Waters based Argoth's ecosystem on intimidating earth jungles like those in Borneo and New Guinea. For the forest's unique root/trunk/canopy structure, he drew on the concept of epiphytes, or plants that have developed root systems that take nutrients out of the air. Though epiphytes usually grow on other plants, Waters reasoned that a sentient forest could develop huge trees with epiphyte-like roots up top, sturdy trunks, and massive exposed roots in the ground.

This idea fueled the rest of the forest's look and feel: the canopy of leaves and arable root mass provided a "second jungle" for the peaceful elves ("bunny huggers," as Waters deemed them) to dwell in relative safety and abundance.

Dangerous predators and giant insects were kept to the forest floor, as were the forest's militant druids who zealously chose their harsher environment as part of their monastic lifestyle of trial and readiness. Overseeing it all was Titania, the spiritual manifestation of Argoth itself, who embodied the forest's natural beauty, its innocence, and its folly.

You see, remote Argoth developed in isolation, so its community of inward-focused nature worshipers were not prepared for the Brothers who arrived in force, bent on taking what they wanted. Only the druids, who had never forgotten the dangers of humans, reacted quickly to the invasion. As Urza and Mishra consumed the forest, Titania waned. As Titania waned, her people lost all hope of defending themselves.

"When someone dies on Bali," remarked Waters, "All sorts of beautiful works of art get put on the fire with the body. It makes the funeral itself a work of art. That's what I was after. Argoth needed to be worth killing, even if only to me as a designer. Knowing that I didn't want to see it get blown to smithereens meant that I had done a good job."

Phyrexia – Let the Hideous Music Begin

Phyrexia was presented to the Conceptual team with significantly more background material than the other realms. Pete Venters's work on the Alliances expansion (the last card set to focus on the continent of Terisiare and its history) convinced him that the Phyrexians were "perfect villains."

He and Scott Hungerford fleshed out the dark realm, creating a race of puritanical technologists that blurred the boundaries of flesh and metal. Phyrexia's Nine Spheres were logically (if gruesomely) mapped out as a coherent, functioning system. Chippy Dugan and Dave Allsop greeted their conceptual assignment with "a fine mixture of joy and terror. It was so large an environment that [we] were a little intimidated." The pair was encouraged, however, by the creative challenge Venters made to them: "I want [the Phyrexians] to look like no other monster the world has ever seen."Dugan and Allsop proceeded to create a race of living, jagged-metal nightmares to serve as the perfect foil to Urza.

Though at the time he likened it to ocular torture, Dugan is still proud of the way he and Allsop met the challenge presented to them by Venters (whom Dugan believes "lives on the Fourth Sphere"). "There's a huge amount of stuff for Phyrexia that would allow you to create any Phyrexian thing imaginable," stated Dugan. "It's important to note that Phyrexia was being developed long before [we worked on it]. It began even before the Weatherlight hit the streets or the sky or the sea."

Allsop also has intense recollections. "[After eight months of drawing nothing but Phyrexians], I virtually became Phyrexian. I think my favorite designs are the witch engine and the birth priests," he recalls. "[These Phyrexians] are going to eat Serra angels, Hurloon minotaurs, and those mincing prodigal sorcerers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner when they come into town."

Serra's Realm – Planeswalker, Heal Thyself

In addition to serving as art director for Urza's Saga, Matt Wilson also worked as the Conceptual Artist assigned to Serra's realm. Just as the planeswalker Serra created her realm as an ordered place of healing, learning, and light, Wilson developed the visual look and feel of her realm to reflect those elements in a manner "as grandiose as possible."

Going into development, there was a large volume of reference material on Serra herself, but the information Wilson had about her realm merely described a "crystal palace in a beautiful sunny place, populated by many angels." Wilson attempted to avoid the traditional imagery of Heaven, though he feels he was only partially successful.

He reduced the amount of crystal finery in the architecture and costumes, and made the palace a flying citadel that followed the sun. There was in fact no solid earth in the initial concept for Serra's realm, "but rather floating slabs of grassy plains, drifting amongst the golden clouds."

The main difference between Serra's realm and the traditional notion of an otherworldly paradise lies in Serra's followers, the inhabitants of her realm. Both the Angels and the Soldiers within the realm serve in active, hierarchical military units ready to defend their home with force of arms whenever necessary.

Even the devotees of Serra's teachings were portrayed as "a sisterhood of warrior-priestesses. Some emphasized their roles as combatants; others, their roles as healers and nurturers. No matter how peaceful and beautiful Serra's realm appears, there is an undercurrent of military preparedness."

Tolaria – School's in Session

Dugan and Allsop also teamed up to produce the island environment for Tolaria. The tiny, inaccessible island was perfect for Urza to establish a safe base of operations, and allowed the Conceptual team some room to explore items never before seen in the world.

The Tolarian environment included one important defining element that could not be found elsewhere: an explosion of time. In Urza's Saga, the planeswalker's time travel experiments literally blow up in his face, flooding the island with temporal anomalies. Landscapes erode and creatures produce generations of offspring in mere minutes; other portions of the island become mired in slow time and remain unchanged for decades.

In developing a visual representation of the time disaster, Dugan and Allsop "thought about time as a tangible substance, like something you can put in a bottle. You can physically hold time rather than just journey back and forth in it." These bubbles of fast or slow time were visually distinct from the rest of the island and allowed the artists to dramatically alter the island's topography.

Further, Tolaria's geographic isolation allowed the artists to explore some truly unique creature types that would not appear in a more diverse ecosystem; dumping those creatures into a fast time bubble then allowed those creatures to evolve in otherworldly (but entirely possible) directions.

The explosion and its aftermath also affected the academy's students. Unlike the ground or the native fauna, the students quickly learned to navigate and eventually explore the time bubbles. The protective suits shown on such cards as Umbilicus were developed from such disparate sources as pre-scuba sea-diving outfits and the suit worn by Bruce Willis in the beginning of Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys.

Neither Dugan nor Allsop would comment on the wisdom of creating an environment and then developing a protective uniform to keep that environment out.

After developing both Phyrexia and Tolaria, Allsop and Dugan found similarities between the dark realm and the time-scarred island... and offered practical and conceptual reasons for the alignment. Allsop freely admits to liking "big industrial objects and steampunk imagery, so it wasn't difficult for me to approach the Phyrexians and the Tolarians in a similar fashion. I think I preferred working on the Tolarians; it was far more challenging than the Phyrexians because I'm always drawing monsters."

Dugan put a finer point on it, noting that both Urza and Phyrexia have an interest in artifacts, especially Thran artifacts, so there is a natural intersection between their work. "Urza would come to some of the same solutions as the Phyrexians because he's exploring the same problems. When you look at Phyrexia and Tolaria, it's different sides of the same coin."

Shiv – Is It Hot Out Here?

Longtime Magic artist Mark Tedin is a self-described "visual pack rat" whose "digital morgue" is well-stocked with images culled from websites so obscure that even other designers don't know how to find them. This habit served him especially well for the Urza's Saga expansion, where he was assigned the volcanic wasteland of Shiv. Apart from dragons, sand, hot rocks, and the occasional lizard person, Shiv was wide open for development.

Tedin based the Shivan terrain partially on the high altitude areas of Hawaii and the landscape of Stromboli, Italy. Once he had the rocky textures and lava flows for his landscape mapped out, Tedin focused on the set's most important iconic structure: the Thran mana rig.

Initially conceived as a "lava-based stronghold," the rig soon took on a look and character all its own. "Thran technology," Tedin points out, "would have an environmental impact, and would need large amounts of raw material." The rig was placed on the rim of an active caldera, where it could draw in hot magma and dump slag and other foundry waste without disrupting the blasted land's natural balance.

"Thran architecture is functional," Tedin continues, "so it would necessarily evolve to fit its location." While the rig's ultimate function won't be revealed until a later set, Tedin did extensive research and generated huge amounts of descriptive text for the rig's appearance.

With the mana rig's form and function clearly defined, Tedin worked with Venters to flesh out the hardy creatures that had taken up residence inside the rig after the Thran exodus—the reptilian viashino—as well as the lowly goblins who dwell on its outskirts. The harsh realities of Shivan life were factored into each race's culture, customs, and clothing.

Tedin developed the extreme environment and Venters helped explore how any society could exist, much less thrive, in that environment. Between them, they created an entirely new social structure for this tribe of Viashino...and planted the first clues that may someday explain a great mystery about Dominarian Goblins (assuming the goblins ever get up the smarts to ask the right questions).

When asked why he spent so much time researching topics and generating text that would not be applicable until the next set, Tedin replied, in a truly admirable blend of confidence and self-deprecation, "I'm too lazy to generate more than good ideas."

I'll See You in the Next World

The Conceptual team continues to work on upcoming Magic sets, brainstorming ideas and fleshing out details for the card artists to draw upon, and for the art director to use as a yardstick for the set's visual consistency. Their work on the Urza's Saga expansion is even more remarkable when you consider that the actual ebb and flow of the plot was not fully developed when they began to create the stage where this epic tale would play out. With each new cycle, as Magic continues to integrate rules, story, and artistic vision, the overall quality of each element continues to improve.

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