What You See Is What You Get

Posted in Feature on June 1, 2009

By Pete Venters

Magic: The Gathering has come a long way since Duelist #1—almost 20 Magic sets containing over 3,000 cards and spawning 2.3 billion errata. During this outpouring of cards (and the coincidental loss of several million acres of rainforest), what has remained constant about Magic? Nothing, except perhaps the card backs. The card front has changed subtly—from the dropping of the gray title type, to the remodeled white mana symbol, right up to present-day additions like rarity signifiers and card numbers. Naturally the rules have become more complex over the years, and the art has changed constantly in style, intricacy and function.

Pretty Pictures

The predominant look of the art has changed from set to set, but never more noticeably than when a new art director takes the reins! That doesn't happen often, right? Wrong. Since Magic's initial release, art directors have included Jesper Myrfors (from Alpha through The Dark card sets), Sandra Everingham (from Fallen Empires through Alliances expansions), Sue Ann Harkey (Alliances through Weatherlight expansions), Matt Wilson (from the Tempest up to the Urza's Saga cardsets),and currently ... er ... Jesper Myrfors! The art directors' individual strengths and tastes (which also includes their preferred stable of artists) will have major effects on the final look and balance of a set's art.

Since the beginning, artwork in the game has grown more and more intricate. With upwards of 3,000 images in the library, it can be very difficult to come up with simple, iconic imagery that doesn't rehash a past card. Within my own painting, I often toss away a composition when I realize that the figures are posed too similarly to card that I did for, or can recall from, an earlier set. Uncluttered scenes are especially difficult when the image must help to explain the card mechanic while strengthening the link to a sometimes-oblique card title.

Another battle for the artist lies in creating truly new images for recurring "staple" cards such as Counterspell (along with the dozen or so Counterspell derivatives). A balance must be struck between fresh imagery and a clear link to the card mechanic. Whenever possible, the best way to make a punchy image work on a relatively tiny card-sized frame is to keep it simple. Jesper, in particular, fervently believes in the power of simplicity.

However, simplicity isn't always compatible with the objective of an image. Back in the day, Magic artwork's original function was to offer a dynamic snapshot of the card's subject—but as time passed, the art also had to convey a cohesive fictional environment. The Ice Age card set is the first real example of this, as the Arabian Nights expansion drew on a real culture. Nowadays, much of the art serves to depict important events or locales from the overall story.

The Tempest expansion, for example, was loaded with "plot shots." Many people thought that the Weatherlight crew appeared too often—accordingly, the number of "crew shots" was reduced for the rest of the Rath cycle. Instead, later sets favored more depictions of the world beyond Gerrard and friends.

So why does the art have to tell a story anyway? Well, that's another can of worms....

Reading between the Lines

When I joined the Magic Continuity team in mid-1995, the Ice Age card set had jut been released, the Homelands expansion was on its way to the presses, and the Alliances expansion was working its way inexorably through R&D. These three sets were emphasizing both story and setting more than any other set before them. The environmental effects of the ice age were inescapable, and Homelands cards were chock-full of realized characters. The Alliances card set was an opportunity to conclude a cycle of sets that dealt with the effects of the Brothers' War and to reintroduce the wonderful Phyrexians. At the same time, Alliances was the first story to focus on hope and rebuilding rather than the downward spiral of destruction that began in the Antiquities expansion.

Scott Hungerford and I took this uncharacteristic optimism with us into the Mirage card set, helping shape an enlightened civilization at its height. Conflict, necessary for a dramatic game based on magical battle, had defined the cards—but when the smoke cleared, the land of Jamuraa had not only survived, but had flourished like a forest after a cleansing fire. The Mirage and Visions expansions allowed us to develop new personalies that could actually be represented on cards and might possiblv appear again in other tales of present-day Dominaria. So far, this has only happened to two characters—one is Teferi, whose youthful escapades on Tolaria can be seen in the Urza's Saga card set, and the second is, of course, Sisay. Sisay was quite unexpectedly thrown into the spotlight as a device to help introduce a host of new characters for the ongoing Weatherlight saga.

Did I say unexpectedly? Yup. Sisay and the Weatherlight crew were designed to be a background element of several sets. The predominant characters and worlds would be new with each cycle, and the Weatherlight would be a sub-plot tucked away in each cycle, available for discovery by the story aficionados but frankly invisible to anyone else. It was hoped this would help us build up interest in the crew without them hogging a set's spotlight. Eventually they'd get a cycle dedicated to them, bringing the sub-plot to the fore in one major event. But this wasn't to be.

Just as Magic has had a high turnaround of art directors, there have also been quite a few managers. Each personnel change brings with it a period of instability, as the priorities of people and products change and adjust. The Weatherlight saga was one such change, pushing the cast to the foreground of the story far earlier than the teams expected.

Rising Tide

In the past, the Creative team continually had to fight against the swell of product releases in an effort to get ahead of the schedule. Now the team develops stories sufficiently in advance so that the card designers in R&D can take plot into consideration when designing cards—and novels can be developed without the kind of schedules that put authors on medication. Believe it or not, the fruits of this hard effort are only starting to kick in. If you thought previous sets offered a potent blend of plot and mechanics—and couldn't possibly have imagined that we wrote the story after the card set was designed—then that means we did pretty well. Raise a toast sometime to handful of editors who accompanied me through weeks of meetings to choose card names and flavor text, then maintained a sense of humor when R&D would dump a half-dozen cards with our favorite titles and strong story imagery.

If you think we didn't pull it off, then hopefully the future will be brighter for you—the people slaving on card titles and flavor text have never been so well prepared. Armed with unprecedented early input into card development and the stunning style guides created by the Conceptual team, story, art, and card design will all be well served. Wish these brave souls luck—it's often a thankless job, where your previous work can actually count against you. Once you've used a card title, that's it. More than once I've heard someone cursing because a title used in the last set would have been perfect for a new card.

In the end, the story shouldn't interfere with a player's enjoyment of the card mechanics, but it should be tough to tantalize the story lovers who want to know more—in which case there's always the novels. In this business of Magic there may soon be no medium left untried.

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