Magic Art Tropes

Posted in Savor The Flavor on December 23, 2009

This article was stuck to the roof of my brain like so much conceptual peanut butter. For months I had wanted to take a week to talk about some of the classic patterns in Magic art, but I kept getting stymied—other topics kept looming larger on the priority scale. But this article refused to come unstuck from my neurons, and back in April (on April Fool's Day, in fact, although the article was 100% legit), I finally got it down on virtual paper. It took some research (where the word "research" here means "looking at a lot of Magic art"—your semantic mileage may vary), but the result is, I think, a worthy snapshot at the process of Magic art concepting through a wide-angle, setting-spanning lens.

It's also full of retina-pleasing art from across fifteen years of Magic sets. And as this year or any year comes to a close, I believe it's important to count things, such as birthdays and blessings. Magic is on an incredible roll, and over fifteen years on, it's still growing, gathering momentum, and piling up wins. I thank you for being part of it, enjoying it, and contributing to its success. If you're one of those who can see things like Magic art patterns across that span of years, Magic is lodged deep within your bone marrow. It's not very hard to imagine myself shuffling up my pet Magic deck as a grumpy octogenarian, and you'll be the people to make that possible.

Happy holidays, and thanks again.

This article originally ran on April 1, 2009.

The process of concepting, as I've mentioned before in this column, is the process of deciding what a bare-mechanics card design should represent in flavor terms, and then writing an art description (a set of visual instructions for the artist illustrating that card) for the card. Concepts often change from setting to setting. For example, what should a 2/2 white first striker be? In Alara, perhaps it would be a noble knight of Bant riding a leotau and brandishing a long pike. In Shadowmoor, perhaps it would be a kithkin tower guardian, or a spooky spirit with long, grasping claws. But sometimes, elements of concepts get repeated again and again, enshrined in trans-planar traditions.

The word "trope" can refer to a figure of speech, such as an oft-used metaphor. It can also refer to a classic, often-repeated element in TV, movies, or other media. Fantasy literature has many tropes, such as the evil villain, the brave hero, or the fire-breathing dragon. These are classic elements in fantasy stories that come up again and again. The concepter for a Magic card set often relies on many of these fantasy tropes to take advantage of the familiarity of these tropes—but we tend to put our own spin on things.

But as Magic has over 10,000 cards and even more unique pieces of art, we don't even have to look beyond the body of Magic card art to find many of the game's own tropes in action. Today we explore some of the game's classic art tropes, and I give them names—for that is how I roll.

    The Victim Cringe

We cast spells to mess with our opponents, mess with their creatures, mess with their game plan. And card art often tells the tale of this baleful spellcraft from the victim's perspective, just before the magic itself does its dirty work on them.

This reaction shot to oncoming magic shows up a lot in Magic art. It gets me every time that the victims try to shield their delicate heads from the brunt of the oncoming spell with their hands. What is with that? The magic isn't a snowball. That's magical lava brought down on your little Naya village all the way from the encroaching plane of Jund, my little Naya friends. Note how hilariously consistent the body language is from card to card.

These two, Twitch and Coordinated Barrage, show similar body language. But they diverge slightly from the first two, in that they show the first milliseconds or so of actually getting hit by the spell, rather the moment before. This brings up a close relative to the Victim Cringe, another classic victim reaction shot that shows up in card art: the Victim Wail.

    The Victim Wail


The Victim Wail expands on the Victim Cringe idea by showing the release of emotion generated by the spell actually hitting its intended target. This is generally represented with some open mouths—which seem to be saying anything from "oof" to "OH MY GOD NO NO NO GOD NO," depending on the severity of the spell.

Note that discard spells often show the Victim Wail with some optional head-grasping. Scott Johns calls this sub-trope "Card Disadvantage Face"—awesome.

    The First Strike Pike

Here's a true classic—a visual representation of the keyword first strike. A creature with first strike hits before its adversary gets to hit back, an ability that is often represented as a long weapon such as a spear, lance, or pike. The archetypal lance-wielder is the knight on horseback, like these lovely first strikers:

Even non-Knights get to wield the Spear of Hitting You First, even when (in the Skyhunter's case) their polearm wouldn't hit much:

Now, there are plenty of first strike creatures that don't have the classic pike. But many have another visual representation for the ability, such as a feeling of breakneck speed (Anaba Bodyguard, Rakeclaw Gargantuan), long limbs (Ancient Spider, Lightning Talons), or some other extendable form of attack (such as the bee-breath of Belligerent Hatchling or the long, snakelike body of Ruby Leech) to hit their foe first.

A close relative of the First Strike Pike is the Double Strike Dual-Wield. It's pretty straightforward—those creatures that hit you twice wield two weapons at once. See below, and see also the art of Double Cleave and Hearthfire Hobgoblin.

There are other tropes in the keyword-turned-visual-cue category, but leave those aside for now. Let's look at one of my personal favorites.

    The Spell Summons

We've looked at what a spell looks like to the victim. This trope focuses instead on the caster—it's the moment when a mage (of whatever stripe—wizard, shaman, cleric, whatever type of spellcaster the card and setting demand) summons up the mystical power before hurling it at his or her mark.

The magic in question can be a mote or sphere of power, growing moment by moment; see also the symbolic, magical wings on Sky Weaver or the gathering storm under Bolas's claw in the card Conflux. The hands are a powerful symbol here—they tell you that the mage is literally crafting like an artisan, using naked will as a tool, and mana and mystical forces as raw materials.

Alternatively, the Spell Summons can be a surge of power growing all around the mage, warping the world around him.

Demystify shows a variant of the Spell Summons trope—the mage in its art is actually dissipating a globe of magic rather than summoning it. Violent Ultimatum is a fave, too—that's the moment after the spell has been let free, in a plane-scarring blast.

    The Countermagic Fizzle

If tropes had nemeses, the nemesis to the Spell Summons would have to be the Countermagic Fizzle. As mages on all worlds cast spells, mages of all worlds fear the mystical droop of spell failure.

Poof. Counterspells are definitely not always subject to the Countermagic Fizzle trope—they actually show the caster more often, as in the spell-crushing Shards of AlaraCancel. And many counterspells show something more abstract, such as the nightmarish concentration-breaker Traumatic Visions or the broken-egg symbolism of Dream Fracture. But when the victim is shown, the signs of the Fizzle trope is usually clear. There's a pathetic little puff of smoke and/or a spark of a malfunctioning device, and the trademark consternation on the part of the mage.

    The Aggro Roar

Countermagic got you down? Go for the throat with this next trope—the Aggro Roar.

Magic sets its tone not only by the presence of the things that personify it, but also by the absence of elements that conflict with it. Note that you don't see creatures that stand patiently in line for tickets in Magic, or that pick at their fingernails absently. That's boring—Magic is about the excitement of spellcasting and the thrill of combining interlocking effects, attacks, and countermeasures together into a satisfying game. So boring stuff just need not apply. And anyway, the real world has enough forebearance, enough long-suffering patience for the sake of social graces, already. So you'll see this trope a lot.

The creatures in this type of art blaze a trail directly toward you, their center of gravity thrown way forward so that they have to run at full speed to keep up with their momentum, their mouths often open in ragged roars of aggression.

This art trope is often associated with the haste keyword mechanic, but it doesn't have to be. Check out these two—they might be the poster children for the Aggro Roar!

    The Healing Hand

Flip open a Damp;D sourcebook and you'll see plenty of scenes of adventurers fighting against monsters. You'll note that many pieces of Magic art, in contrast, depict only a single, obvious figure instead. The reason is that Magic art is only a few square inches in area—and you're often looking at them from across the table, rather than right there in front of you in a book. That's why you often see only the caster or the victim, or the monster or the hero who's out to fight it—too much going on in a card's art, and it just looks like a mishmash at card size.

But there's an exception. The Healing Hand trope often shows a healer putting his or her protective hand on the despairing wounded.

Despite the prevalence of this concept, healing is actually a bit problematic in flavor terms, given the way the rules work. Healing spells and abilities in Magic are usually damage prevention effects, rather than damage repairing effects. Damage doesn't stick around past the end of the turn—everything heals itself from nonlethal damage—so "healers" are actually doing something much more useful—they're preventing wounds from happening in the first place.

There are sinister variants of the Healing Hand art trope—check out these black cards that "lay on hands" in a decidedly Hippocratic Oath–violating way.

That's about it for today, but I want to leave you with one last funny art trope.

    The Drake Getting Hosed

For whatever reason, drakes are often shown as the victims of harmful spells. I thought they were just victims of Unsummon-type "bounce" spells—in which they are sucked up into classic æther vortices—but when I sat down to do the research, it turned out that drakes are nuked by every color in Magic.

The rule appears to be – if you can't think of some other victim to show in some spell art, pick on a drake. Maybe getting blasted by spells is actually important to their reproduction or something? I know when I cut down my hedges in the fall, they only grow back more aggressively in springtime.

There are more art tropes in Magic, so maybe we'll revisit this topic later. I still haven't gotten to the Protective Bubble, the Sneaky Crouch, the Caster Blaster, the Villainous Shoulder Shrug, and many more. Let me know if you think of others!

    Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Circumnavigation":
Would the Blind Eternities be red? You (and several others) have described the Blind Eternities as "the chaotic, senseless void between the planes." Chaos (and occasionally, reluctantly I admit, senselessness) falls under red's domain. How can something universal to all planeswalkers be focused on a single color? If this void is red, does that mean that worlds, relatively more orderly than the Blind Eternities are more white or blue? The most chaotic land moutains/volcanoes are the best sources of red mana, but do not even compare to the Blind Eternities.

The Blind Eternities is not color-aligned, Jared—it's no more red than it is any of the other colors. It's un-space, the nothingness which tears at those stray chunks of reality (planeswalkers, for instance) who would dare pass through it, a metaphysical transition-state that lies between stable pockets of the real.

But it's true that we often use words like "chaotic" or "mad" to describe the Blind Eternities, and that those words are generally used in the red area of the color wheel. And it's true that the logic-defying strangeness of the space between the worlds might be particularly disquieting to blue or white mages. But these descriptions of the Blind Eternities only grope at its nature, calling into focus the inadequacy of a conceptual system to describe the self-contradictory un-ness of it. Raging lightning storms are chaotic; the urge-driven tempers of dragons and berserkers are chaotic; the size of Chaotic Goo is chaotic. But when we talk about the chaos of the Blind Eternities, we mean something way more bizarre. We mean primordial chaos, like the chaos that presides in many creation myths before divine beings arrive to create all of the stuff. We mean the absence of our most basic truths, such as cause and effect, or the rules of mathematics, or the nature of dreams and ideas. In the Blind Eternities, nothing holds—which is kind of like chaos, but in a much stranger way. In truth, it doesn't make any sense—which gives rise to descriptors like "senseless." It's hard to get a fix on a "place" or state of being like that, and so sometimes our words handle it imprecisely.

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