Keeping Spells Spellish

Posted in Savor The Flavor on August 5, 2009

An artistic crusade of Magic art director Jeremy Jarvis is to make sure that the art of "spells" (meaning, in this context, instants, sorceries, and enchantments, roughly speaking) looks like spells, and that the art of creatures looks like creatures. Sound easy? You'd be surprised. There's a lot of spells that look like—in creative team parlance—"just a dude." Take these two pieces, for example. Which is the creature, and which is the (noncreature) spell?

Click to reveal answer.

Try another one. Which is the spell and which is the creature here?

Click to reveal answer.

The closer that creatures and spells look to each other, the less variety there is in card art, and the trickier it is to tell the two apart at a glance. So we endeavor to keep these kinds of art distinct from each other. Today we take a look at spell art concepts, and how we strive to keep them "spellish."

    Creature Art

To be clear, none of the responsibility for these creature-spell collisions lies with the artists. They're professionals; they illustrate what we tell them to illustrate. The responsibility lies with us. It's all about the card concept, those few sentences of description that instruct the artist what to illustrate, so it's the card concept stage of art development where the line must be drawn.

As it turns out, it's not very hard to keep creatures looking creaturish. We've learned that the demands of making fantasy art successful and impactful at its two-inch card size naturally overlap with the needs of creature illustrations. The most impactful pieces of art at card size are single-figure compositions with sedate or low-contrast backgrounds, and that kind of composition is exactly what most creature art tends to have.

Furthermore, there's not really anywhere else for creature art to go. Creature art should depict the creature that the card represents—full stop. We find it disruptive and confusing when the art of a creature card doesn't prominently depict the creature it is; it's so consistent a rule that I'm even having trouble finding an example of that, but it does happen sometimes.

So the burden is basically on the spell art to stay distinct any way it can.

    Spell Art Rules of Thumb

It's tricky to come up with a hard-and-fast rule about what makes a piece spellish. But the exceptions and corner cases of the job have led us to some rules of thumb to handle the fuzzy world of spell art.

Don't let the figure be the focus.

Certainly it's too strong a constraint to want no creatures in spell art; our whole game is about powerful mages casting spells, and often spells on creatures, so sometimes a being hurling or suffering some magic is exactly the right thing to show. But on spells we try to keep the emphasis on the magic rather than the figure.

If you've seen a recent art description, it includes lines for the card's "color" and "focus," both of which let us guide the artist to emphasize the magic of the spell on spell cards. For example, here's the art description for Magic 2010's Divination.

Color: Blue spell
Location: unimportant
Action: This spell represents a mental breakthrough, a stroke of genius. Show a human mage's hand that has just reached into a "scrying bowl" of clear water. Where the mage withdraws his hand from the water, we see that he's holding two small glass keys -- but the keys exists only above the water's surface. There's nothing in the water at all.
Focus: the symbol of wisdom gained
Mood: no stage magic -- this is the conjuration of raw knowledge

Howard Lyon came up with this for Divination, a very nice spell piece:

Of course, we don't mind if spells that create creatures have creatures in the art; that's only natural. We don't mind if Crush of Wurms shows some Wurms or Mogg Infestation shows some moggs. Indeed, that's generally what we ask for in those cards' concepts. Still, sometimes there's a particularly artful way of showing creatures while staying "spellish."

Even when a figure has to be in the art, one way to keep the focus off of the figure is to hide the figure's face. For example, Shadowmoor'sMind Shatter subtly cues the viewer that the important element is the dark magic going on near the back of his head rather than the figure himself, since the figure's face is covered up.

Divination—and Holy Strength and Unholy Strength in the same set—pull off this trick another way by only showing the mage from about the shoulders to the waistline. Divine Verdict shows a marauding giant blowing away into dust fragments—conveniently slicing off the top of the head first, making it look more like a white spell and less like a Giant creature card. Chopping off the head: Bad in family photos. Good in spell art!

Show magic in action.

The converse of "de-emphasize the figure" is to make sure the magic has emphasis. Sometimes a concept asks for a physical action to be shown, and these mundane actions can be evocative. But to make sure that there's actually a spell in there somewhere, we take pains to make sure something out of the ordinary is going on.

Clear the Land: Not very spellishClear: Spellish!
Path of Peace: Not very spellishPath to Exile: Spellish!

The magical goings-on in spell art should draw the eye. It can be the most significant "hotspot" in the piece, or take up a lot of real estate inside the art frame. It should grab the viewer's attention relatively more than the other elements in the piece.

Interestingly, spell art possesses a lot of power to set the tone of a setting. What counts as a spell varies from setting to setting, from high magic to low magic, as well as along other dimensions. Sets like Shards of Alara and Mirrodin tend to have strong, in-your-face, showy spells—streaks of dragonfire, artifact explosions, humming magical auras. Sets like Lorwyn or Portal Three Kingdoms have more ordinary events count as spells—military maneuvers, courtly intrigues, aggressive weeds, fish flying in your face. Interestingly, this fall's Zendikar setting features some spell art in both categories. Spell art can serve to turn several creative dials, highlighting a setting's tone and timbre by what counts as a "magical spell" there.

Get abstract!

The art of a Goblin creature card can't very well hint at or gesture toward the essence of a Goblin—it needs to show a Goblin. But spells can readily go abstract and symbolic, often to very powerful effect. Abstract spell art isn't intended to represent the photographic reality of some event in the multiverse. When a mage casts Sift, he doesn't literally take off his head—three times, somehow—set them all down on a table, then root through their brainpans looking for the cards he wants. But this piece (by Magic art director Jeremy Jarvis himself) captures the essence of Sift in a provocative and unexpected way:

Magic 2010'sHaunting Echoes moves away from

of a tormented Cabal Patriarch toward a more abstract scene. The spell extracts huge chunks of a mage's long-term memory—see how the mage is going at the shadow of his own head with a knife and fork? It's a less literal representation of the spell (as "literal" as any art of a brain-cleansing dark magic spell could be) but it evokes a new and different visceral response to think of the targeted player eating the remnants of his own mind.

Here's some other spell art that's lower on the literal and higher on the out-there factor. In my opinion, it's some of the most gripping and beautiful art in the game.

In particular, Jeremy Jarvis leaned on Magic art veteran Terese Nielsen for a slew of abstract M10 spell cards. Holy Strength, Unholy Strength, Lifelink, and Nature's Spiral all show off Terese's strongly graphical illustration of abstract concepts.

All these rules of thumb contribute to separating spell art from creature art, keeping spells "spellish." We work to make sure that spell art has its own look, not overshadowed by the power/toughness-bearing crowd, and that it isn't "just a dude."

    Letter of the Week

Here's a nicely spellish question from Jean-Yves.

Dear Mr Beyer,

The release of M10 leads me to asking you a question I have been sandbagging for some time, but it seems extra relevant now.

Let's say I'm a powerful red mage facing his green nemesis, and that weak coward called his friend Garruk for support.

For fear of being overwhelmed by various beasts, I decide to play one of my most devastating spells, Earthquake.

I make it as powerful as I can and the tremor is magnificent. I watch in delight big chunks of rock being hurled in the air, buildings and trees alike collapsing and all manner of ground creature dying.

Sure I get hurt a little bit myself, but it's worth it, and soon the only question I have left to answer, in the midst of this mayhem, is the following :

Will I assign the damage to Garruk or to Mr Green Mage ?

Could you please give me a flavourful explanation as to why Earthquake's damage will have to be assigned either to my opponent or to his planeswalker ally ? I'm at a loss here.


Planeswalkers summoned to the battlefield have the gallant (some might say distasteful) responsibility of helping their summoner. When your green-aligned foe—let's call him Fred—summons Garruk Wildspeaker, the fact that Garruk agrees to show up on the battlefield represents Garruk's commitment. Garruk has tacitly agreed not only to cast some spells and overrun some faces, but also, in the course of battle, to get attacked and occasionally set on fire. Too much of this abuse and, naturally, Garruk will depart, leaving Fred to eat those Earthquakes solo. But for as long as he's there, Garruk's unspoken promise is to mix it up and sometimes take damage for Fred.

Your Earthquake example brings up a strange case. Are you not able to shake the ground beneath Garruk and Fred at the same time (along with hurting all those other cute furry woodland animals)? Why is it one or the other? It seems to be a flavor anomaly generated by the planeswalker rules—the very rules that allow planeswalkers like Garruk to suffer damage from burn spells in the first place.

The flavor of the situation may have to do with that unspoken contract between Garruk and Fred. Planeswalker allies protect one another—far more than planeswalkers tend to protect their creatures. The fact that you have to choose between Fred or Garruk signifies that they're looking out for one another in this way. Either Garruk is going to serve as a meat-shield against the damaging tremors, taking the hit for the one who summoned him—or Fred is going to soak it up for Mr. Wildspeaker.

The fact that you get to choose which of the two of them takes the damage is a little strange—again, that's a result of the rules that let you choose Garruk to take the damage from a Lightning Bolt. In flavor terms, perhaps it's a timing thing. Perhaps the two planeswalkers, Garruk and Fred, are moving about on the battlefield, alternating positions such that they're never both in range of your area-effect spells. Although they never enter spell-range together, they do enter it singly every few seconds, and you get to time your Earthquake spell to choose which of them gets blasted.

The rules are already doing some pretty impressive gymnastics to allow planeswalker cards to suffer "spellish" damage. I agree that it'd be nice to treat planeswalker cards as full-fledged players, though. It'd be great to dash them en masse with earthquakes, enchant them with, um, Paradox Hazes ... have them split, uh, Fact or Fiction piles .... Okay, maybe it's good that the rules don't treat them exactly the same. Thanks for your question, Jean-Yves!

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