Something Twisted This Way Comes

Posted in Feature on May 30, 2016

By Chas Andres

Chas Andres is a freelance writer and MFA student living in Wilmington, North Carolina. When he's not at his keyboard dreaming up stories, you can find him playing with his cats, listening to records, or building yet another Magic deck.

Something mad is happening on Innistrad. Who or what do you think is responsible?

If you've played enough Shadows over Innistrad, you already know how much things have changed. The Angels have gone mad. The Werewolves are stronger than ever. Mysterious structures called cryptoliths mar the landscape. Innistrad has always been a spooky place, but this is something else. No wonder Jace is so determined to solve the mystery.

Play-wise, this sleuthing is represented through the investigate mechanic. Investigating gets you a Clue token, which you can sacrifice to draw a card. Hmm...how does drawing cards get us any closer to solving Innistrad's big mystery?

Well, Shadows over Innistrad's artwork is filled with visual cues designed to foreshadow the source of Innistrad's increasing madness. While no single card in Shadows reveals the answer by itself, the solution begins to take shape as you look at the clues hidden in the set's artwork. The more cards you draw and examine, the closer you can get to figuring out what's really happening to Innistrad.

This week, I'd like to take a closer look at the five "families" of visual cues used by the artists to foreshadow the coming conflict. While I won't be announcing the source of the mystery today, I encourage you to do some additional detective work on your own. There are plenty of other cues hidden in the art of Shadows, and there are loads of interesting fan theories about the culprit's real identity. For now, though, let's don our tricorn hats, grab our magnifying glasses, and start the investigation.

Warped World

Back in the 1920s, a group of German artists and filmmakers decided to rewrite the rules of horror. Instead of portraying the world in as realistic a manner as possible, they decided that the environments depicted in their art should better represent the (often anxious or mad) interior world of their characters. Their buildings didn't obey the natural rules of perspective. Doors and windows were jagged and distorted. Shadows were divorced from any realistic light source, often painted on the walls and floors of film sets. Canted angles and bizarre perspectives made the viewer feel uneasy.

These German expressionist techniques inspired the visual look of the Universal monster movies of the 1930s, the most iconic horror films of all time. In fact, many of the tropes we conjure up when we think about horror imagery are a result of these artists. Even today, distorted perspectives and unmotivated shadows are used to create an environment that is both scary and mysterious.

I don't blame you if you noticed some of the scenic distortions in Shadows over Innistrad and assumed they were just expressionistic flourishes. German expressionism was a clear influence on the visual look of the set, but there's a little more to it than that. In truth, the warped architecture and landscape of Innistrad is the first family of visual cues designed to communicate the fact that the Innistrad we all know is undergoing seismic change at the hands of...well, we'll see soon enough.

Let's start by looking at the stone floor in Pore Over the Pages and the stone wall in Dissension in the Ranks. Neither distortion is obviously supernatural, but they help create an expressionistic sense of unease. Clearly, something bad is happening here.

You can see a more overt example of this change when looking at the wooden support beams on the buildings behind Avacyn, the Purifier. On the Archangel Avacyn side of the card, the beams appear normal and orderly. On the flip side—after Avacyn's descent into madness—they look jagged and careless, as if designed by an insane architect.

Here's your vocab word for the day: the little wooden boards that separate window panes? They're called muntins. Muntins are usually quite straight and grid-like, but that's no longer true on Innistrad. Check out the devolving latticework muntins on the lower right corner of Elusive Tormentor, as well as the haphazard muntins visible in the background of Duskwatch Recruiter.

The forests of Innistrad have always been spooky, but they used to obey the laws of the natural world. Not anymore. Check out Byway Courier, where all the trees in the background seem to point in random directions. Or puzzle over Weirding Wood, where the tree trunks are twisted and pulled at an angle as they appear to follow the sway of the cryptolith in the center of the frame.

Crush of Tentacles

Visual cues don't have to be grounded in the environment of a scene, like an off-kilter window or a twisted tree. Our second family of visual cues is a more conceptual motif, and it's something you might not have noticed unless you took a more abstract approach toward analyzing the art of Shadows.

Once you see it, though, you can't help but notice it over and over again: on Innistrad, there are tentacles everywhere.

Let's start small. Take a look at the twisted mass of "tentacles" created by the wrought-iron door and pitchfork lurking behind the paranoid Soldier's cowering body. You still might not think it's anything...until you notice the small, purple tentacle creeping out of the Paranoid Parish-Blade's sleeve. Still think there's nothing to be afraid of here?

Take a look at the tentacle-esque root structure at the top left of the frame. It almost seems like the dead body is pointing right at it, doesn't it?

The physical beings of Innistrad share this creepy motif with the landscape. I don't know about you, but Graf Mole is the only mole I've ever seen with tentacles for a nose. And check out the deformed face of the aggressor on Confront the Unknown—we'll be coming back to him a little later.

In addition to defying the laws of nature, the trees on Byway Courier are exceptionally tendril-like. Ditto the branches behind Accursed Witch. Even the strands of straw rising from Harvest Hand's neck and hand look particularly tentacle-like to my eyes.

The hood and cloak of Uninvited Geist are tattered and frayed, while Lambholt Pacifist's stunning shoulder pads appear to have been crafted from delicate twigs. The two costumes couldn't be more dissimilar, but they both still evoke this tentacle motif.

We started small, so let's finish big. Take a look at the waterspouts descending from the sky—they form a looser collection of "tentacles" than most of these cards, but on Innistrad? It's a clue.

Looking for Latticework

The third family of visual cues might be the most striking. It involves a biological, almost fungal latticework structure that's hiding everywhere on Innistrad. Perhaps you've noticed it creeping up here and there?

On some cards, the latticework appears as a cankerous sludge. On Daring Sleuth, this stuff is showcased as the flavorful reason behind the creature's flip trigger—when Daring Sleuth touches the latticework sludge, it transforms into Bearer of Overwhelming Truths. Hmm—I wonder what those truths might be?

The lattice structure is omnipresent, but it isn't always obvious. Take a look at Kindly Stranger—while your eye may have first been drawn to the old woman and her lantern, a deeper read of the card reveals the ominous latticework dominating the branch in the foreground and the large rock on the left side of the frame.

The latticework does not appear to discriminate between big and small, alive and dead. The hillside directly behind the lantern in Fork in the Road appears to have been overcome by it, as have all the trees foregrounded in Traverse the Ulvenwald.

Innistrad's creatures aren't immune to the chilling effect of the latticework, either. It's particularly vivid on Might Beyond Reason, where a Human appears to be drawing supernatural strength from the lattice structure developing on his muscles. The same is happening to Mindwrack Demon, whose wings have been transformed by the maddening structure. On Stallion of Ashmouth, latticework is starting to develop on the horse's head and legs. The fact that all three of these cards have delirium isn't a coincidence—the lattice structure is most prevalent on Innistrad's recently insane.

The lattice texture appears even in places where you might not think to look. Did you notice the latticework on Lightning Axe? I didn't see it until I compared it directly to the card's previous printing, and then I couldn't un-see it.

The same is true for these two versions of Plains. They depict the same physical location, but the first is from Innistrad while the second is from Shadows over Innistrad. See the difference? That's right: not even the sky is safe from the lattice structure overwhelming the plane.

One of Us

The mysterious lattice isn't the only thing cropping up on Innistrad's creatures. The fourth family of visual cues encompass the various physical mutations afflicting the denizens of Innistrad. Let's start by taking a look at one of the most horrifying pieces of art in the set:

The "shattered mirror" effect on this card distorts what it actually going on, but it's clear that something horrible is happening to this guy's face and hands. Beyond the general grotesqueness, you can actually see that both the mysterious lattice structure (above his rightmost mouth) and the tentacle motif (look at the fingers on his right hand and the back of his left hand) are present.

Innistrad's new mutations disproportionately affect faces. Check out the warped grimace on Wayward Disciple, Scourge Wolf's unhinged jaw and extra set of eyes, the man's gigantic eyeball on Behind the Scenes, and the mouth growing out of the Mad Prophet's ear.

Limbs, both human and animal, are also widely affected. The hand on Grotesque Mutation is the most obvious alteration—not only is there a horrifying mouth where no mouth should ever be, but the lattice structure and tentacle motif are present here as well. Tooth Collector appears normal at first...until you notice the tentacle snaking out from the sleeve on his left hand. Ditto Stallion of Ashmouth, a delirium-addled horse with five(!) legs. And Magnifying Glass reveals a lidless eyeball growing out of a woman's arm surrounded by yet more latticework.

Color Me Mine

The final family of visual cues involves color. If you've been paying close attention so far, you might have picked up on this motif already. Many of the physical mutations, tentacles, and latticework share a color scheme that doesn't seem to match the rest of the composition. Let's take a look:

Each of these cards heavily incorporate pink into their design. Observe the pink lattice ooze in Thraben Inspector, the glowing pink maw and limbs on Hound of the Farbogs, the pink tentacled mutation on Confront the Unknown, and the pink nose on Graf Mole.

Purple is often used as well—check out the purple tears on Pick the Brain, the purple eyes and mane on Stallion of Ashmouth, and the purple ooze on top of Inexorable Blob.

These two cards feature tentacles that highlight the entire spectrum of otherworldly colors—tentacles that range from pink to purple to blue.

All will be revealed on June 20. For now, let's all take one more look at the excellent foreshadowing work done by the artists of Shadows over Innistrad.

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