The Unusual Suspects
When we started Lorwyn creative conversation, I was still serving as lead Concept Artist for Magic, and Jeremy Cranford let me pick my concept dream-team, to be flown in and work on-site with us.
Here's the roster:
Omar Rayyan – Omar lives and breathes this stuff. He has worked in both the gaming industry and the young adult market. While we knew we did NOT want to pander to younger audiences with Lorwyn, I expected Omar's experience working within that visual vocabulary would be invaluable.
Steve Prescott – Years ago I happened to be visiting Seattle when Steve was part of the concept crew for Eberron (a Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting). I got to see the concept art during a visit to Wizards. I was struck then with how pleasing Steve's drawn shapes tend to be, even when drawing a blade master or some other knife-y, dangerous thing. The shapes are beautiful, well designed and always with a strong understanding of structure. I remembered that work years later and knew we had to bring him back in-house for this project.
Warren Mahy – I'm not sure that most Magic players realize the depth and scope of the pool of talent we draw from for their Magic card's art. Warren is a relative newcomer to Magic, but a veteran of Weta Workshop. He was a concept artist on both the Lord of the Rings film franchise and on King Kong. We had already started to narrow in on a heavily forested, very green and very European-feeling setting for our Giants, Elves and Kithkin to inhabit, so how perfectly suited was Warren, having lived in concept crews centering heavily on both of these ideas already!
Months later we flew a second crew in to finalize the style guide. My move to art director during the first phase of our push had effectively robbed us of an in-house art resource (Cavotta had moved away as well by this point). We needed some holes filled and more importantly we had a lot of drawings to take to color, and color cues being so important to this setting, the pressure was on. We brought Warren back in, all the way from New Zealand, and Cyril Van Der Haegen and Anthony Waters joined him right after San Diego Comic Con. They drew and painted like fiends. Cyril did a lot to flesh out weapons and equipment and magic for the races, as well as taking figures to color rough, Warren niched off into land color comps, and Anthony breathed hue into our elementals, brought merrow hubs to fruition and even pushed a bit ahead into our next style guide. We'll talk about that in six months or so.
Pushing the Silhouette
The tribes R&D was going with were all human analogues, but no humans. This being the case it became imperative to me that we avoided the low-hanging fruit of a humanless setting that was peopled with giants, kithkin, merfolk and elves that were simply big people, little people, fish people, ear people, etc. We needed something more compelling, something more unique and stylish. There are no humans in the set, so there would be a human-shaped hole, visually speaking. Silhouettes would be pushed, pulled, stretched and squished. We wanted characters and races with shapes that lent themselves to this setting and the types of stories that could be told there—creatures who felt at home in a place sprung from "storybook," that belonged visually in a European forest, that pushed the idea that the beings here were other-than-human.
The litmus test that I passed along to first our concept crew and then to our large pool of illustrators was this: Lorwyn were to be adapted for a movie, the producers should have to have a long and difficult conversation about how to bring the races to life on screen. Animatronics? CGI? Cutting-edge puppets? If the races would be achievable through humans in prosthetics and makeup, we have failed.
We were all looking at the best of the best for the vibe we were shooting for. Larry MacDougall, John Howe (both of whom ended up painting cards for Lorwyn!), Robert Ingpen, Arthur Rackham, Brian Froud, Alan Lee and so on, looking for trends in what caused their respective bodies of work to resonate, and talking in hypotheticals about what the goal was (for example "Rackham if he painted like Maxfield Parrish" was one of my old standards). One of the themes that emerged was the role that the natural world plays in design sensibilities. The races were chosen by R&D not only as a contrast to our last tribal block but also based on a level of popularity and/or established presence in the game. That means races who would have otherwise been at home in this setting creatively (centaurs, satyrs, griffins) were passed over, and on top of that, ALL creature slots will be dedicated to the given tribes. That meant no centaurs or satyrs—or foxes or hawks or frogs for that matter—to hit those notes or use them to flesh out the setting even if only on a couple cards. We had to look for venues for these stylistic notes elsewhere. The elves ended serving this purpose to a great extent (as did the greater elementals... more on that later).
We were already pushing the elves tall and lean as the kithkin became short and stocky; the addition of horns and hooves to our Lorwyn elves not only gave us an anthropomorphic and sylvan shape, but also played well with what we knew of their green/black affiliation. Their lithe forms now felt a bit more empowered, a touch more brutal and grounded them firmly in the visual role of territorial rulers of the dense forest.
There were a lot of lines to walk with these guys, mostly due to what they couldn't be. We had to avoid gnomes, dwarves, hobbits (cartoon and movie), and, maybe most importantly (to me anyway), just little normal humans. They needed to look capable, smart, organized and even formidable when called upon to be so. In the end it was Prescott who really nailed the stocky-but-not-dwarven look. Lots of convex and rounded shapes in armor and weapon design reinforced their visual sensibilities. We also wanted to communicate racial identity through styles of magic for each tribe. Kithkin feel at home with powders and dusts etc. A bit alchemical feeling, but still natural enough for a white / green people.
One of the things that felt right for this setting was the idea of morphological "families," things that are roughly related in both size and sensibility, but divergent from each other physically. We pushed this heavily in our new-fangled black aligned goblins and greater elementals, and pursued it to a lesser extent in Giants and Treefolk. The idea that Goblins are more mischievous than malicious in this setting is really what we used to define them visually. This really started with the angle we decided to take on their culture and magic usage. They are thieves and collectors, hording booty and overeager to experience any new sensory input. This lead to an idea of a shamanistic style of spell casting, using dreamcatcher-ish wand contraptions that are loaded with twine, animal bones, stolen goods, and perhaps their favorite spider. Visually, they're small, appear smart enough to steal, and come in a wide variety of shapes, all of which should seem at home in a crap-filled hovel amongst the cat tails and lily pads of the swamp. This diversity insured that we don't get sick of seeing the same shaped goblin over umpteen cards in a tribal set (like we would have if we had approached them the way we approached the akki of Kamigawa, for example).
The look of Merfolk in Lorwyn was primarily determined by their disposition. They are controllers of commerce and communication between tribes. Benevolent, but dispassionate... what I called the "Mr. Data" vibe. The real challenge with merfolk here was creative's emphasis on integrating them into a world where oceans and seas felt out of place. We developed the idea of merfolk "hubs" and cisterns and wells that used built structures that act as roundabouts and water-roadways to augment the existing river and stream networks of Lorwyn, granting the Merrow easy interaction with, and travel between, the various races and their homes.
This was simple. We just didn't want trees with two arms, two legs and a human face glued on them. We gave a few examples in the styleguide of ways to push them and then trusted each illustrator to design something fun and interesting.
Giants in this setting were to be aloof and individualistic. Some mediate, some are ornery. Some are friends of kithkin, some pay no attention where their next footfall lands. Again, we reinforced this visually by using the "family" approach in their design. They're all big, but other than that we pushed for physical diversity to sell the giants' personality on an illustration to illustration basis.
In a set featuring both Giants and Treefolk, we decided for Elementals to take a hard right turn away from our normal giant shambling rock-or-vegetable thing. Also, flamekin were to be a distinctive race, so big fat fire elementals would step on their toes. We wanted something more striking than a hybridization of other races in the set. This also proved to be a great venue for littering the woods with large inimitable shapes that would help sell our Euro-story-forest. Greater elementals are ideas and notions given form in bodies of surreal, naturalistic, but chimeric creatures.
Blue-black faeries. Self-absorbed. Pests. Gossips and manipulators. Carefree but with undercurrents of cruelty. Early on we explored the idea of black Faeries being insectoid and the blue ones being a bit leafy or floral. This is an instance where we actually homogenized a race a bit. Floral and leafy felt more green than blue, and arbitrarily splitting them visually based on the card's color felt arbitrary. But insectoid... that felt right on. Various fae may hail from different insects, but this visual gag very succinctly communicates much of what the tribe is about... stinging pests with short life spans. Just a touch of "off-putting" for a blue tribe with undercurrents of black.
These guys were a beating. What feels less at home visually in a very green, lush, and heavily forested world than fire people? The flamekin went through several painful iterations before we found a shape for them that fits into this world. Shape-wise, they are actually quite sylvan, lots of swoops and points, while still retaining a sculptural feeling of rock or living ash. They are neither fire-monsters nor superheroes, either of which would have greatly undermined our setting. They don't walk around breathing fire and setting the forest alight, but rather use their abilities to super heat their weapons when push comes to shove.
There you have it! Once flamekin came into focus we had our racial roster. Prescott even drew it out:
Note the absence of a standard human's shape. It was an enormous amount of work simply have it absent in favor of a more immersing, unique, and stylish setting. This also lent itself very well to communicating clearly that this plane is where our first planeswalkers are NOT from (that's the point of planeswalking, afterall... to go somewhere else).