Who could be so pitiless as to leave the denizens of these sub-planes to struggle in a state of half-formed subsistence, in constant search of a missing piece of their natural and historical chronicle?
What callous entity would sunder a plane and divvy up the core concentrations of mana in such a methodical and manipulative manner?
The answer to this question is not a power-mad demon, not an insane rogue planeswalker, and not a furious omnipotent deity.
The real evil here is the Magic creative team and their mercenary artistic minions!
I will attempt to explain a little about how and why this evil plot was hatched, and what the concept art team added visually to the mix.
When creating a new plane in the multiverse (which we do by using the perverse occult magic of microwave "peep" sacrifice) we always have to take into account what has come before, and what we are planning for the future. This left us with a clear definition of what Alara couldn't be, and allowed us to explore and cultivate the remaining options of what it could be.
We had just completed Lorwyn and Shadowmoor, which had a storybook / fairytale theme and a focus on tribes, and we wanted to move away from that. We did however keep in mind that people love tribes, guilds, and factions since it gives players a banner to rally behind and iconic concepts to identify with.
This "faction" idea germinated into the concept of one origin plane that was split into five separate sub-planes through some cataclysmic event (a "sundering"). Each of these sub-planes would be called "shards," since they were fragmented portions of the original plane.
Five separate and unique shard-planes would be way more fun to create than a few piddling factions! Right?
Defining Each Shard
The shards would be a refraction of the original plane as seen through a twisted three-color mana kaleidoscope. They would each be defined by three colors of mana that were dominant on that particular shard. The shards would also be partially defined by the two colors of mana that were not prevalent on each plane.
This left us with one question: should each shard completely lack two colors of mana and the concepts attributed to those mana colors? If so, this concept led to many creative conundrums.
Does a shard with no red mana completely lack fire? Can denizens of this shard create metal weapons and tools?
Do humans and humanoids that live on a shard with no black mana die? Can they even conceive of death?
How does a shard with no green mana (plants, eco system) or blue mana (water) even support life at all?
It became apparent very quickly that we couldn't paint ourselves into a corner by defining each plane too stringently in this manner. We did, however, decide that the three dominant mana colors of each shard would be the defining source for the races, cultures and creatures that lived there.
A shard that did not have red mana as one of its three core components could have fire. It just wouldn't have lands crackling with volcanic lava fields. Fire would not be apparent.
A shard with very little black mana would still have death, but the creatures of this sub-plane may be longer lived, and death rituals would be done in a pilgrimage manner (they would go to the great hidden valley and die, much like the "elephant graveyard" phenomenon).
A shard with very little blue or green mana could have water and plants, but they wouldn't be as prevalent on these shards.
With our top level concept in place and our course of action now plotted we moved into the next stage of the creative process for Alara, the summoning of the concept artists who would come and help define the visual style for this set.
Obviously the process for creating an entire set includes the rest of the creative team as well as the development team who define the rules and statistics for the set, but I will focus on the concept art creation since that is my personal gig.
The Concept Art Team
When Jeremy Jarvis asked me whom my dream team for the Shards of Alara concept push would consist of, my answer was swift and shrewd. I asked him to get me the reanimated corpse of Leonardo DaVinci, two cats (one that spoke French and one that could translate the French to the Queen's English) and whoever that guy was who came up with the "I'm with Stupid" t-shirt design.
After a world tour and two months in a Vatican prison cell, Jeremy returned utterly defeated.
I was crushed.
In lieu of my dream team, however, Jeremy Jarvis did manage to conscript Wayne Reynolds, Chippy, Zoltan Boros, and Gabor Szikszai for the in-house concept art push. This team of creative heavy hitters would help further define the top line concepts our team had created thus far.
In the case of Shards of Alara, our concept art team would also have the daunting task of creating five separate and unique shards (sub-planes or worlds) that could be visually defined in a way that would make them automatically recognizable and easily distinguishable from each other.
Our team was up for the task!
Defining the Five Shards
As our concept team settled in, we outlined the concept for the "sundered world" of Alara, which had the code name "Rock" at the time, and we defined each shard based on the three dominant colors that permeated it.
Each shard would have one core color that defined it, and two colors of lesser intent that help round it out. This helped us come up with ideas that incorporated the three-mana color schemes as opposed to a one-color theme, which would have forced us to re-hash many older and ingrained Magic concepts.
In order to come up with appropriate concepts we had to revisit the definitions for each color of mana and try and imagine the results of the three-color crossovers, while also keeping in mind what the impact would be of having two mana colors that were almost nonexistent in that shard.
After many discussions and sketches we began to gain a clearer focus on what each shard would be like. Since each shard did have a dominant core color of mana, many concepts would have some unique "cross-color" ideas and some would need to be pushed to create more eccentric examples of the iconic imagery that we identified with those colors.
Since the concept art team would obviously need to have a focus on the visual vocabulary for the set, we also had to keep in mind that everything must be made to look as interesting and appealing as it sounded when we pitched the ideas.
One of the ideas that appealed to our creative team for this set was "divergent evolution." Each shard would be defined and unique in its own right, but we also wanted a few hints to the fact that these shards were once one massive plane.
This led to some interesting crossover ideas, such as the leotau, a large, quadrupedal, semi-sentient relation of the leonin race that would be used as steeds by Bant knights.
There was also the idea that lizards would be the dominant creature type in Jund, which had red mana dominating it, and mammals would be the dominant creature type in Naya, which had green mana dominating.
On Grixis, everything would be either withering or dead, so this was an excellent venue to add in zombie or skeletal versions of creatures from other planes.
The general idea was to give hints here and there that these worlds had once been one in the same. These hints would also help define and infuse each shard with its own feel.
With these ideas in the back of our minds, and a focus on the mana colors that would define each shard, we began creating concept art for the set.
The dominant mana color of Bant is white, and its subordinate colors are green and blue.
Bant is a world of bright blue skies and rolling plains that end in steep sheer cliffs leading down to a tranquil green ocean. Even the foliage of Bant gives the impression of a very large and tended garden, with well-ordered hedges and trees.
In addition to this, massive castles suspended on great arched columns tower above the flat landscape.
Humans, elves, rhox, and aven are the central races for Bant. They have ornate, and in some ways impractical, costuming. This costuming gives the impression of nobility and status, and an air of a diplomatic, well-ordered world.
Warriors have gilded and elaborately crafted armor that's meant more to confer a sense of awe than to have practical use in combat (battles are more ceremonial than martial).
Sigils (medals) are given and worn to commemorate heroic and noble deeds and victories in combat. These sigils are a mark of status and respect, and great heroes are weighed down by the many sigils that hang off of their armor.
Shining sigils float around the Angels of Bant. The angels give these sigils to the noblest heroes upon completion of great deeds.
On the battlefield, the great heroes of Bant ride huge leotau mounts, adding to their imposing and imperious stature.
Bant is a world that embodies light, order and life.
Blue mana is dominant in Esper, flanked by contrasting white and black mana.
Esper has clouds that are dissected and skies that are marked and measured by flowing lines of mystical dust. It has vast dark oceans and deserts of fine sand that are cast into the firmament by prevailing winds.
Esper has elaborate, stylized towers with curved flowing shapes that show craftsmanship and control over the elements. In the lower depths of these highly crafted tower cities is the eternal gloom of the tidehollow, a dank underworld inhabited by unwholesome creatures.
Humans and the lanky Esper vedalken inhabit this world. The most powerful of these have creepy little homunculi as servants. Clothing matches the stylized look of their architecture, with filigree designs and flowing robes.
The beings of Esper have mana-imbued etherium metal integrated into their bodies. Some have only touches of filigree, but others have enough to create elaborate filigree appendages, a hallmark of high rank in Esper.
Mysterious sphinxes are seen navigating the sky lines on gloomy overcast nights.
The mystical tampering of human and vedalken mages have twisted the creatures of the world, leaving many creatures more artifact than beast.
Esper embodies uncontrolled experimentation, tyrannical organization, and political intrigue.
Grixis is dominated by black mana and influenced by red and blue mana.
The dark clouds and thick air cast a heavy gloom over the pulsating, flesh-like lands of Grixis. Oily, bubbling pools stain the landscape like open pustules on the skin of the world.
Decrepit necropolises and massive insect hives litter the landscape in a state of slow decay, similar to the rest of this expiring world.
Deformed and diseased humans inhabit this land, ruled over by ruthless undead lich-kings making zombie and skeletal slaves from the abundant dead carcasses that littered the landscape.
Tools and ornamentation are also made from bones and flesh. Weapons pulsate and crawl with undead tissue and teeth.
The vulture-like kathari roam the dark skies looking for their next meal. Gigantic ruthless demons enslave and destroy on their whim, while malnourished vampires skulk in the shadows awaiting their next kill.
Grixis exemplifies death, undeath, rage, and dark scheming.
Jund is dominated by red mana and permeated to a lesser extent by black and green mana.
Jund has jagged volcanic mountains, deep-cut valleys, and a pungent sulfuric atmosphere. The cavernous valleys support dense and tangled vine jungles, which are, perhaps, the only refuge for life in this plane.
The denizens of this world inhabit crude caves and nests. There is no time for flamboyant architectural endeavors in this savage land.
Humans are savage, almost feral. Brutal crocodile-like viashino and murderous goblins dwell in this vicious world.
Clothing and tools are ragged and crude. Humans use poorly fabricated iron weapons while the other races take advantage of obsidian and wood that is more readily available and more easily fashioned into tools.
Deadly poisonous and man-eating plants litter the land along with the dominant life-form, reptiles.
The kings and queens of the reptiles, the ancient dragons, reign over this cruel world. They periodically survey their territory from the air, and of course swoop down for a meal of goblins now and again.
Jund embodies savagery, brutality, and the survival of the fittest.
Naya is a world of green mana that is also imbued with red and white mana.
Naya is home to massive rain forests whose huge canopy parts in places to let shimmering shafts of sunlight through.
Humans integrate their structures into the ever-growing landscape. These structures are built and rebuilt as vines and roots creep in and break the stonework down. Their tribal society uses megalithic shrines to worship the gigantic creatures that roam the land.
The leonin inhabit prehistoric temples on higher ground, temples that hint at a lost leonin high culture. The leonin also live in tribal bands.
Elves live in tent villages suspended high in the colossal tree branches. These villages can be broken down and easily moved when the great beasts tread too heavily and too close. Elves embellish their clothing, armor, and weapons with pictograms of these great beasts as a sign of worship and fear.
The multi-headed hydra is the ill-tempered sovereign of the great beasts. It has several long fur-covered necks that end in a curious fusion of eel- and mammal- like features.
Naya embodies insurmountable growth, ritualistic worship, and tribalism.
Well, there you go, a summary of some of the visual and concept cues used in Shards of Alara in one tidy package.
The goal was to make each world visually and conceptually distinct, and I think the creative team, the concept art team, and the design team did an exceptional job at rising to this challenge.
I would like to especially thank Wayne, Chippy, Zoltan, and Gabor for all of the great concepts, artwork, and laughs.
In closing, all I have to say is, if necessity is the mother of invention (and thus creativity)...
...then having to create five visually distinct worlds must be its drill sergeant dad.
For more information about Shards of Alara, check out the Shards of Alara product section and Doug Beyer and Jenna Helland's A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara. And don't miss the Prerelease September 27 and 28!