Tipping the Scales

Posted in Savor The Flavor on March 11, 2009

Today we talk about living large—not in terms of a lifestyle of fame and bling, but in terms of living creatures who are large.

The real world—at least in my citified neck of the concrete woods—is, frankly, a disappointment in this arena. The biggest animal I see on most days is my own 6'2'' frame in the mirror, just after having stepped off that insolent bathroom scale. The scale, with its prim digital numbers, is impertinent on the best of days, but still doesn't register the kind of magnitude I'm talking about today.

The Multiverse, on the other hand, is populated with all manner of enormity. It's a fatty parade that would put the Jurassic Period to shame. Alara's now-reintegrated Naya shard supports a record-breaking assemblage of power and toughness, but all the shards of Alara have just the kind of weight we're looking to muster.

But when it comes to illustrating these titans, there's a problem. The art box on a Magic card is only about 2 inches (5 cm) wide by 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) high. That constraint threatens to hem in any large-livin' creature, cramping its thunder-stepping style. So how does a colossus keep from looking like a wee beastie in that wee box? In his article Show me the Blubber, Matt Cavotta outlined three techniques artists commonly use to give a sense of mass to their monsters. Today we take a look at art of some of the megafolk of the Shards of Alara block to see how Alara's artists put these techniques to work.

    Comparative Scale

How do you know that the big is big? You know when it's next to, and bigger than, something known to be small. When Magic artists depict their fatties next to relatively tiny creatures such as birds or humanoids, you can do a little eyeball-math to get a sense of the world-crushing scale involved.

Cliffrunner Behemoth art by Wayne Reynolds

As a hasty 5/3, Cliffrunner Behemoth hits like a load of bricks launched from a cannon. But you can tell how massive it is just from the elements of scale in the art. Check out the little dude losing his footing near the Rhino Beast's right front foot—that's a human being! And you can also get scale from the little checkmark silhouettes of birds in the sky above it—a technique so classic that we sometimes call them "scale birds" here in the office.

Sunseed Nurturer art by Steve Argyle

This is a very different look at one of Naya's gargantuans—up close and personal from the perspective of Sunseed Nurturer, a human who trains and draws sustenance from the efforts of a mighty plowbeast.

But it's not just Naya that gets the benefit of this scale-comparison technique. Any piece that shows a mass battle with people-sized people charging into huge-sized creatures reaps the rewards of some comparative scale.

Suicidal Charge art by Daarken

One technique related to using comparative scale is to scale different parts of the fatty itself, relative to one another, to give an impression of immense size. As an example, one rule of thumb that our brains have learned to adopt is "tiny eyes = big." A blue whale's eye weighs more than a kitten's entire body, and yet the sea mammal's eyes are a teensy proportion of its overall size (whereas the kitten's eyes are proportionally huge). It doesn't matter if a picture of a whale is only two inches long—if its eyes are little pinpoints, our brain uses that rule of thumb to estimate its size to be enormo-tronic.

Kranioceros art by Steve Argyle
Broodmate Dragon art by Vance Kovacs
    Subordinated Viewpoint

Another way artists trick our brains into perceiving largeness is with a subordinated viewpoint. That's when the art is from the perspective of a teensy shrimp, like yourself. When I was in college, I would sometimes see members of the basketball team (go Jayhawks!) walking around campus. They were easy to pick out—when you looked at them, you looked up at them. You can see different surfaces of a creature's body from a subordinated viewpoint—you see chin beards, for example, and nostril hairs, and—when you're low enough (for example when you're seated in a lecture hall and they stride down the aisle next to you)—you even see their jerseys hanging down at you, like a tapestry mounted from the ceiling.

Same principle goes for Magic fatties. Check out Paleoloth.

Paleoloth art by Christopher Moeller

We do not see the top of Paleoloth's head. We do not see the markings or shaggy greenish fur on its back. We see its chest and the roof of its roaring mouth. (Also note the scale of the worshippers around it, the building nearby, and its tiny eyes.)

Nyxathid art by Raymond Swanland
Esperzoa art by Warren Mahy

If the "camera" is pointed up, you get the feeling that you're craning your neck to take in the thing's enormity. Esperzoa is this way partly just because it's a flyer up in the sky, but the viewpoint effect is so powerful that Creative actually asked development to inflate Esperzoa's power and toughness to match the art (it was a fatty when it commissioned, became a piddly 3/2 for a while, and ultimately inflated back up to 4/3).

The subordinated viewpoint works for non-creatures, too, by the way. Want to make a stone monolith look really tall? That's you down at the grass-and-vine level—and that's the top of the obelisk, way up there, vanishing into the distance.

Obelisk of Naya art by Steve Prescott
    The Effects of Distance

Air isn't empty. It's full of humidity, dust, precipitation, smoke, pollen particles, and what-have-you. The further away something is, the more of this interstitial gunk gets in between you and that distant thing. Artists use this fact to show something as huge, by showing part or all of a creature obscured by lots and lots of air. The details get fuzzy. The colors fade to a grayer neutral color. When a creature fills a lot of the frame and has these indicators of distance, we know that sucker is super-sized. Check out the Jund creature in the background of Goblin Assault.

Goblin Assault art by Jaime Jones

See how the scene progresses into the distance? See how your eye is drawn by foreground goblin, to background goblins, to immense fog-shrouded beast? You can tell that guy is large and in charge not only because of the relative goblin-teensiness, but also because there's that much humidity in the way of its form, and yet it's still that big on your retina.

Jaime Jones is pretty good at this, eh? Here's another one he did that you may have seen.

Progenitus art by Jaime Jones

Bam. Progenitus doesn't have ten tick-marks running up his necks. He doesn't have "scale birds" flying around him. That stuff is small-time. He interferes with the frickin' weather patterns, man. He almost vanishes into the clouds—because he's part of the Alaran landscape.

    All Threes

Many powerful pieces of monster art utilize more than one of these techniques at the same time. Want to broadcast a creature's fattydom crystal-clear to all who would look upon it? Point the camera up at it, compare it to tiny things for scale, and let part of it recede into the atmospheric distance. Here are some examples of pieces that hit two or three of these principles.

Inkwell Leviathan art by Anthony Francisco

A subordinated viewpoint effectively dwarfs our view here—the leviathan crowds into the upper part of the frame, letting us feel the distance between ourselves and the massive sea creature. But when the viewpoint is from a tiny lighthouse—an entire building—we get some serious scale comparison going on too.

Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker art by D. Alexander Gregory

Little scale-flyers (and tiny eyes), so we know a he's massive being. A viewpoint from way, way down below him, so we know we're insignificant bugs compared to His Elderness. And even some atmospheric effects, showing us that his tail is really far away. Yep, I'd say that Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker qualifies as a triple.

However—and it might be heresy—but I think this piece actually bests Bolas as a classic-fatty masterpiece:

Apocalypse Hydra art by Jason Chan

The Bant-tower-crushing scale. The tiny soldiers getting stomped in relative insignificance. The secondary and tertiary heads fading into the cloudy Valeron atmosphere. The from-the-hip "knight-cam" looking up into its various fangy, slavering chins. At least from an art perspective, Apocalypse Hydra might just be the king of Alara's fatties—a worthy example of all three of these scale-tipping techniques.

    Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "An Etherium Tale":

This isn't totally related, however I have been waiting to ask this question and now, with this story, seems the right time to ask it. You co-authored A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara so maybe you could shed some light on the Sangrite vs. Carmot argument raging in my head. In the Guide, and I quote, "The leaders of the sect (The Seekers of Carmot) claim that they have in their possession the partially destroyed, elaborately encoded CODEX ETHERIUM of the sphinx Crucius himself, and that they have decrypted the tome to the extent that they know they must find a red stone called carmot in order to unlock the secrets of etherium.' And from the Jund section, 'Sangrite forms as reddish cylindrical spikes in volcanoes or deep caverns.' It may be the Vorthos in me, but I see a connection (and I mean really, how cool would it be for Esper to totally declare war on Jund for some Etherium goodness?). In your past columns it seems as if you're notorious for not giving up the game, so just a slight nod in the direction of 'yeah, that's totally it' or 'No, but good guess' would be fine for me. Thank you for taking the time to read this as well, and answer it too. You are on my top 10 list of cool guys so keep the flavor of the game strong.

Thanks for your question, Zac (and I've heard the same question from multiple folks).

So, by way of explanation, you know how shoelaces work, right?

Bare with me for a moment ....

Shoelaces zigzag between two sides of the shoe (the usual method is called cross-lacing—thanks, Wikipedia!). When you pull on the ends, the shoelaces tighten and pull the sides of the shoe together, tightening the fit on your foot.

Details like the Seekers of Carmot and sangrite are like conflict shoelaces.

It's true, there are deep similarities between the red stone that the Seekers of Carmot seek and the spiky red crystal found in the dragon-infested volcanic caverns of Jund. It might very well be, as you suggest, that Esper desperately needs exactly what Jund has locked away in its blistering crust. And if that is so, then, as you suggest, Esper and Jund may very well need to turn their attention to one another, expand their warring fronts to bring each other into their war-sights, and bash heads.

We like this kind of thing. This kind of thing helps pull the shards toward one another, causing them to hate each other's guts. More importantly, Nicol Bolas likes this kind of thing—a lot. He's spent many years (since when he fled Dominaria at the end of the Future Sight novel) building some "conflict shoelaces" of his own.

Remember, though, that at the time of the Conflux set, only "adjacent" shards (shards that share two of their colors, such as Esper and Bant) have physically overlapped with each other. At this point, while it's possible for an Esper army to travel all the way through the lands of Grixis to get to Jund, that's quite a distance, and so the main conflicts for Esper have been with Bant and Grixis.

At this time, let me present the Wet Paper Towel Model of the merging shards, an alternative to the Orange Wedge and Refraction Models of Alara, discussed here.

    The Wet Paper Towel Model

To be clear, the shards are obviously not similar to pieces of wet paper towel (or kitchen paper, as some folks call it). They are (were) independent planes of existence. But we're getting metaphorical here—we're using this comparison to help us understand how the Conflux is proceeding.

Imagine five pieces of circular, white paper towel arranged in a circle, with each one having its edges almost touching the edges of its immediate neighbors. Now douse each paper towel in a little bit of food coloring, each with its own color (you know which five—okay, fine, maybe the white one doesn't need any coloring—let's just wet it with water). You now have your five shards of Alara just before the Conflux. It's not that different from the back of a Magic card, except that the five dots have swelled into large discs, and our model is making more of a mess of your kitchen table.

Now pull them toward each other to the point where they begin to overlap, Venn diagram-style. See how the translucency allows you to see a bit of blue Esper through the white paper of Bant? See how the green paper of Naya mixes colors with the red of Jund? Those are incursion zones.

By the way—Oh, the humanity! The structured shores of Esper have crushed together with the horrid Dregscape of Grixis! Thousands die at every frontier! The doomsayers! The doomsayers were right all along!

Okay. Now notice that there's still a space in the middle, between the five shards. The Jund sheet has not yet come into direct contact with the Esper sheet—there's no direct mixing of red-blue food coloring.

Now let's go a little bit further. Push those paper towels farther toward one another, toward a common center until the hole between them disappears and they juuuuust touch. Ka-bam. Crazy stuff is now going on. There is now a landmass, a crazy, spiraling valley at the union-point of five merged worlds, where before there was only empty space. That's where the Maelstrom is forming—but more about that later. Around that central area, there are large football-shaped regions of overlap between the adjacent shards. Serious overlap. It's getting to the point where non-adjacent shards are almost able to overlap one another. That, my friends, we'll see in Alara Reborn!

Now, are the shards disc-shaped, or partially see-through? No. They are worlds, likely just as spherical as our own. The model uses 2-D sheets of kitchen paper because it's harder for us to think of overlap in 3-D terms. But if you imagine partially-insubstantial globes merging into one another—in a way that old John Venn never dreamed of in his wildest days at Cambridge—that's closer to what's happening. Boundaries are collapsing. Spaces are fusing. Distances are remapping themselves. The properties of one world are showing partially through the lands of the next. When it comes down to it, it's not pretty like a mathematical model—it's the reality of Alara.

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