A World Sculpted from Metal

Posted in Savor The Flavor on March 23, 2011

By Doug Beyer

Senior creative designer on Magic's creative team and lover of writing and worldbuilding. Doug blogs about Magic flavor and story at http://dougbeyermtg.tumblr.com/

It's Mirrodin Week, which for this flavor-oriented writer means it's time to set my crosshairs on the cultures, history, and art of the plane of Mirrodin as a whole, beyond the temporal boundaries of set or block. Of course, there's plenty to read on the flavor of this world already. You might, for example, want to check out these articles dedicated to this metallic plane:

But even with all that behind us, there are still highlights to hit. Today we treat Mirrodin and Scars of Mirrodin as one giant mega-block and look at flavor issues surrounding the setting as a whole.

Glimmervoid | Illustration by Lars Grant-West

Finding the Magic in the Metal

The Creative Team's job for both Mirrodin-centered blocks was to integrate the principles at the heart of Magic in general with the metal-world theme of Mirrodin in particular. One of the biggest challenges in Scars block and the original Mirrodin block was to keep it a seamless part of Magic, not tipping too far into various flavors of science fiction, such as "spaceship future," "steampunk," or "robot world." It's a setting full of artifacts and artifact creatures. Machines, equipment, gear, and creatures made of living metal. Although Magic toys with sci-fi concepts and imagery, and although we enjoy poking at the admittedly stretchy boundaries of fantasy, it is still a multiverse founded on mana, mages, and spellcasting—it's firmly rooted in fantasy. To keep Mirrodin from straying outside the bounds of fantasy, we employed these rules of thumb:

Beacon of Creation | Illustration by Mark Tedin

Mirrodin's machines run on magic, not science.

Machines suffuse both blocks, but not machinery so much. Or maybe that is a cheaty use of these largely synonymous terms. What I mean is that the artifacts might have moving parts, like your Grindclocks or your Mortarpods or your Spin Engines, but they don't work by scientific principles. Even if their parts work by interlocking clockwork gears, their fuel source—their initial motivating principle—is almost always magic, not steam or combustion or electricity. Springs and pumps tend to be out. Wires tend to be out. Certainly circuit boards, batteries, or other post-transistor-level technology is out. Even anything with wheels gets the official creative team stinkeye until it's clear that it's driven by either magical power or an overenthusiastic goblin. We bend these rules occasionally, but the overall purpose is to keep it fitting Magic—a world where plane-traveling mages take center stage.

Deconstruct | Illustration by D, Alexander Gregory

Focus on the tropes of fantasy that fit well in a metal world.

One way to keep the metal world firmly within the boundaries of fantasy was to concentrate on those elements of a metal world that would have been at home in fantasy anyway. The fact that Mirrodin introduced the Equipment artifact subtype to the game made this rule largely easy to follow. Mirrodin is full of swords, axes, helmets, scepters, staves, suits of armor, and other weapons, gadgets, and gear. The very idea of a creature being able to hold a sword or wear armor was only awkwardly implemented in Magic prior to Mirrodin (see cards like Runesword or Tawnos's Weaponry), which is shocking since it's such a basic idea in fantasy.

Mirrodin Concept Sketch by Sam Wood

Mirrodin Concept Sketch by Matthew D. Wilson

Golems aren't robots.

Beyond equipment there's also the traditional fantasy concept of the golem, which of course Mirrodin played to the hilt—as long as it was a metallic golem (which leaves out concepts of golems made of materials like flesh, clay, or straw) and it was clear that those golems were animated by magic. "Metal golem" treads dangerously close to "robot" territory, and we didn't want a world of droids worrying about oiling their joints and plugging into wall sockets. Again, the basic unit of Magic is the mage. We leave fantasy behind when we start letting the look of the world be inspired by real-world engineering.

Bosh, Iron Golem | Illustration by Brom

Include other tropes of fantasy, but interpret them through a metallic lens.

Throughout Mirrodin, you can find the mainstays of a traditional fantasy world, even beyond equipment tropes—knights, castles, dragons, elves, goblins, ogres, wizards—but they're all viewed through a metal-world lens. We have gold-flecked Auriok soldiers, pteron-riding leonin knights, fortifications of metal, turbine-thrusted dragons, copper-armored elves, furnace-tending goblins, metal-chomping ogres, and artifice-obsessed mages. We also have Magic-specific concepts such as glorious warrior angels, wurms, and hellions. There are always points of contact with the expectations of the fantasy fan. There are recognizable translations of most of the elements of the plane into well-known tropes.

Mirrodin Concept Sketch by Matthew D. Wilson

Mirrodin Concept Sketch by Todd Lockwood

Worn and weathered.

The look of Mirrodin artifacts and artifact creatures is well-worn and broken in. There are elements of shiny chrome and polished glass, but they're set in among war-beaten, hand-crafted, almost natural shapes of the world around it. For every gleaming sword or tightly-fitted Myr, there's a forge-hammered chestplate or a rust-cobbled scrap golem. It's not a lustrous future-world. It's not a world that's adapted to plastics and carbon fibers and nanotech. Those obvious signs of wear and tear help keep Mirrodin rooted in fantasy, too.

Taken together, these rules of thumb let Mirrodin explore the concept of an artificial, metallic plane while still stitching it into the fabric of a magic-driven Multiverse. Next, let's look at some home-run pieces of art from the two blocks, which represent that integration very, very well. I'd be eager to hear if you have other favorites that fit our rules of thumb well.

Grafted Wargear | Illustration by Alex Horley-Orlandelli

Zeniths of Mirrodin Art

Favorite art from the original Mirrodin Block: Vulshok Sorcerer by rk post

Runner up: Silver Myr by Kev Walker

Ever wonder what a sorcerer with haste looks like? It looks like this.

Vulshok Sorcerer | Illustration by rk Post

Embraces Magic's aesthetic of dynamic, high-action fantasy? Check. Gets across the trope of a lightning-wielding mage while making it at home in a metal world? Check. Celebrates a woman as a wild-eyed ass-kicker rather than as a damsel in distress who need a man to save her? (This is always a goal of ours.) Check. Encapsulates the Mirrodin setting, combining life with metallic elements? Check. Incredibly well painted, composed, and detailed? Check. Secretly painted in frame-busting vertical aspect for the hell of it? Check! This piece is everything I want in a snapshot of the life on Mirrodin, and it's a terrific piece of art besides.

Silver Myr | Illustration by Kev Walker

My runner-up choice of Silver Myr is not just about the drizzly, Blade Runner-esque palette or the Dark Knight-like crouch of the adorable myr. It's about how much emotion a stylized, smooth-lined, metallic life-form can project. This guy is having a serious moment. This piece always made me wonder not only what he's cogitating about but what a myr's metallic mental life is like. And, in line with our goals for this setting, it's an entirely artificial little man, but it's not a robot—it's clearly a magically-animated, hand-crafted artifact.

Favorite art from the Scars of Mirrodin Block: Priests of Norn by Igor Kieryluk

Runner up: Precursor Golem by Chippy

Priests of Norn | Illustration by Igor Kieryluk

I already swooned over Igor Kieryluk's Priests of Norn in a recent article, but I still think it's the image that perfectly captures this era of Mirrodin stricken by war and of Phyrexia's expanding rebirth. Creepy yet regal. Authoritative yet sinewy. This piece is not so much about the metal-world aesthetic of Mirrodin as it is about the look of Phyrexia taken in a new direction. But again, it's about trying to make something very artificial look at home in a world of fantasy. Phyrexia certainly pushes the boundaries there, but look at the result you get:

Tower of Fortunes

My second-favorite piece in the Scars block so far is one that points at the earliest times of Mirrodin's history. Golems are an ancient metallic race on Mirrodin, but they were mostly wiped out by Memnarch when he began his grand experiment, populating the plane with soul-trapped species from other worlds. You can read about the ancient golems in the flavor text of the five Tower artifacts.

Precursor Golem | Illustration by Chippy

The three golems in the art of Precursor Golem are meant to show the first three beings created by Karn on his artificial plane of Argentum (which later became known as Mirrodin). As you can see in the high-res, they were created nearly in the image of their creator; they have Karn's serious brow, thick collar structure, and what I like to call "golem frown," just like Karn, Silver Golem. These three ancient golems regard the Mirrodin landscape from a high vantage point in the Glimmervoid, set against a beautiful double or even triple sunset (the blue sun is setting and the white sun is on its way—but we can see the glow of what might be the red sun coming from out-of-frame). They're a direct link to Mirrodin's past, a fantastic illustration by Chippy, and for me, a flavor zenith.

Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Six Secrets Behind the Sets":

There's an art gap I'm hoping you can help bridge regarding a little pest that's been bugging me (pun intended).

When I first saw Signal Pest it struck me how really familiar it looked, so I looked through my old Mirrodin cards and viola! there it was: Thermal Navigator.

Since it's smaller, like it accidentally fell into a Darksteel Forge and kept a small bit of its flight ability, is Signal Pest possible a pre-form to Thermal Navigator, or is this just a different type of the same species?

Are there more of them? If so, what nets are used to catch them?


Good eye, Graeme! Yes, there is a visual similarity between battle cry beastie Signal Pest by Mark Zug, from Mirrodin Besieged, and hop-happy little construct Thermal Navigator by Jim Murray, from Fifth Dawn.

In-flavor answer:

Thermal Navigators and Signal Pests are artifact creatures that "evolved" from a common ancestor-artifact. Autonomous metallic life is plentiful on Mirrodin, from Drill-Skimmers on up to Razorfield Rhinos and Steel Hellkites. The designs of artifact creatures on the plane change over time. Many artifact creatures are created by artificers or other sentient beings, but there also exist a smattering of autonomous processes that can generate them without conscious input. Artifact creatures are generated by self-sufficient foundries left over from Memnarch's time, golem-forges built into certain areas of the plane, and the activities of a few enterprising myr. As the models spun out by these processes change, this gives rise to a kind of metallic design evolution. Later models "inherit" design features from earlier models, and designs branch out to fit the environments, purposes, or predators they encounter. Thermal Navigator is a construct adapted to search the Razor Fields, using jets of fuel to bounce temporarily into the air. Signal Pests are adapted to crawl and bound through the upper reaches of the coppery Tangle Forest, firing off simple messages to guide other constructs.

Signal Pest | Illustration by Mark Zug

Thermal Navigator | Illustration by Jim Murray

Behind-the-scenes answer:

When it came time to illustrate Signal Pest, we wanted a design for a small, foliage-roving construct that had its roots in Mirrodin's artificial life. We liked the shapes in Thermal Navigator's design—that long, swooping head structure, those jet-powered grippers, and those spindly subordinate legs. We sent Jim Murray's art as reference for Mark Zug to paint from, with the instruction to show it more as a "climber and leaper" rather than a jet-propelled hoverer. Signal Pest's forward claw became a kind of signaling device, firing off a white beam of light like a signal beacon.

Thanks for the question, Graeme!

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