A Guide to the Art of Magic: the Gathering
by Tiziano Antognozzi
STARBURST and Wizards of the Coast have teamed up with the Italian art historian, Tiziano Antognozzi, of Scuola IMT Alti Studi Lucca, to explore the cultural themes and nuances found within the cards produced for Magic: The Gathering’s March of the Machine.
Presented below for your education and delight is Tiziano’s essay, Context is Magic, a guide to the art of Magic: The Gathering. The piece explores character, shape, and flow and how the artwork of the cards binds itself with the overall strategic and playful elements of the game…
There’s a constant relationship between a piece of art and the context in which it has been originally produced for. Inasmuch as a label or an audio guide might tell us everything that happened to a specific altarpiece before being exposed in a museum, when the context of the exhibition changes, so does the artwork. Every time an artwork is seen, its performance changes according to the audience, the stage, and the time. Here’s a slightly less predictable example: while appreciating the sophisticated allegories depicted by Piero di Cosimo within his “Procri’s Death” on display by the National Gallery of London, a large share of the audience might not recognize its original destination. The painted wood panel was, indeed, originally a headboard. Surely the headboard must have belonged to the bedroom of a wealthy and cultured aristocratic family, but still a place very different from an art gallery.
The act of looking at art from the past outside of its context it’s something we are by now widely accustomed to. Given that the vast majority of the images we look at today are created and reproduced with an unprecedented speed, our acquired ability to understand a painting despite a changed context it’s actually very useful. If there’s indeed always an original environment of creation – without that, we’d be reading a novel by skipping the first chapters – it is also true that an artwork might contain several interpretations and, accordingly, several ways of using that image. Images are indeed necessary in order to create, to communicate, to remember. But not only that.
In the year of its 30th birthday, Magic: the Gathering it’s still the most famous trading card game, played and beloved by millions of fans around the world. Whereas In 1993, the game created by Richard Garfield only featured a few hundred of cards to choose from to build your own personalized 60-card deck, with the newly published March of the Machine, the total amount now exceeds the number of 30,000.
For each of these cards, the game’s Art Directors have commissioned illustrations to more than 450 artists from all over the world, thus creating, at this point, a huge collection. A quick calculation: if one would exhibit every single Magic card in a Gallery, the space needed would be fifteen times the exhibition capacity of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera.
The game’s Lead Designer, Mark Rosewater, has often defined Magic as a group of games unified by the same rules system. Indeed, every single image within this landscape can be used in various ways and thus looked at accordingly. Let’s take the illustrations for “Cut Short”; a first level of interpretation lies in the text rules, namely, telling us what the actual effect of the card is.
It’s not the artwork’s colours or the number of figures which will lead us to win the match, but still, the fact that the card is aptly recognizable in its features also helps us to quickly remind us what that card does and how it interacts with the others. In a game of the complexity of Magic, every step towards simplification translates into a thick strategic markup.
A further way of reading Magic illustrations lies in their narrative function. Wizards of the Coast has been indeed producing a wide corpus of stories, novels, comic strips and more which are published alongside expansion sets in order to understand what is actually going on, as these are all woven together into an overarching narrative with recurring characters and ongoing plots. But besides that, it’s because of the cards and their illustrations that one is able to visualize the story and actively live in it through playing the game. As an instance, we may look at Rovina Cai’s “Moment of Truth”, where we see a person from behind within an abstract composition which seems to hint at some fatal momentum.
The character is called Elspeth Tirel, a veteran knight crossed by a tormented past, now vowed to justice and the fight against oppression. Elspeth and her allies are called to stop Phyrexians, a civilization of half-machine, half-organic beings willing to spread, conquer and convert every form of life into instruments of their ideology: absolutistic, dominant, coercive, immutable.
In “March of the Machine”, Phyrexians have now found a way to travel into the Multiverse, being this is the complex of worlds – in the game, they are called “planes” – in which Magic stories are set. The invasion is made possible by Realmbreaker, a gargantuan tree turned mechanic by the Phyrexian infection and whose branches can open passages through the Multiverse towards any plane.
Until now, the only individuals capable of this were Planeswalkers, special beings who are able to spark this power within themselves after an intensely traumatic event in their lives. Planeswalkers such as Elspeth represent the extreme defence of the Multiverse. The Phyrexians know it; they have been studying planeswalkers for long and eventually managed to infect and convert some of them into stewards of the Multiverse invasion. We can thus witness fights such as the one depicted in “Cut Down”, where Tran Nguyen has chosen an elegant crayon palette in order to render the intense confrontation between the Wandering Emperor, ruler of the plane of Kamigawa, is forced to confront and eliminate her counsellor and friend Tamiyo. This has been converted into a Phyrexian, some black articular prosthesis emerging from her hands, an oily cry straining from her empty and apathetic eyes. In the whirling rhythm of the composition, our gaze has the time to stop only two times: one on the suffering but finally human expression on Tamiyo’s face, the other on the Emperor’s tightly closed lips, her eyes concealed by the hat forming a moving counterpose to the resolved severity of the enemy’s execution.
The cards’ illustrations may thus also function for a further purpose. In between the necessities of the game and the narrative, an illustrator may also find a platform for expressing something more personal. This lyrical breath allows the scene to resound in terms of human experience through the artistic tools of visual arts.
An educated eye may, for instance, recognize some suggestive dialectics with traditional painting techniques. We can detect some of this in this “Swamp”, which Raymond Bonilla decided to set on the already seen Kamigawa. Beside the subtle inclusion of narrative elements – that circle crossed by a perpendicular line is the Phyrexian trademark – Bonilla here dedicated some special care to the chromatic weights of the canvas, whose compositional balance stays vibrant despite a very narrow palette of selected purple tones.
The brushes widens, tightens, and vividly varies according to light spots and perspective, up to creating some essay of intense expressive verve. The most intense illuminated section at the center, leaves us wondering whether those thick lumps of paint spiking out of the canvas are trying to chase some Impressionist vibe. Many Magic illustrations are totally realized with digital means, but artists like Cai, Nguyen, Bonilla chose to rediscover traditional techniques in order to visually communicate on a different linguistic ground, suggesting surprising questions on the amphibious importance of the past and the role in which the human factor plays in this.
Among the many intense happenings of “March of the Machine”, none seems to peak the pathos of Wrenn’s story. Wrenn is a dryad with powers allowing her to literally feel what she calls a being’s own “song”, a voice telling of its identity, temperament, aspirations. This faculty allows her to enter in a perfect symbiosis with some specially featured trees, with which Wrenn establishes a functional exchange: she gains a way to walk which would otherwise be impossible for her, while the tree turns sentient through the connection with Wrenn’s mind. If needed, the dryad can also channel her own song through the tree and turn into a pyre.
Gregorz Rutkowsky depicts Wreen at the beginning of the March of the Machine story, together with her fellow planeswalker Chandra Nalaar.
The two have just ported themselves on New Phyrexia (the Phyrexians home plane) to cut the interplanar links created in the Multiverse by Realmbreaker. Wrenn’s plan is to connect with the Phyrexian tree while her allies are frontally charging the enemies in a basically suicidal attempt to buy her time. Miraculously, the dryad manages to navigate the tree’s suffering soul and connect with it.
However, in the attempt of channelling her own fire into the tree, Wrenn is pushed to the extreme and sacrifices herself in a burning inferno which Anato Finnstark visually rendered in this literally burning composition.
Whereas the tale in its full breath may only emerge after reading the stories, looking at the images and playing the game, there are artworks which seem to solidify the whole experience through the depiction of the single, most intensely dramatic peak of emotional tension. Jason Rainville has chosen to portray Wrenn while her companions are struggling to break ground through Phyrexian defences and take her close to Realmbreaker. The narrative is all built throughout the sculptural poses of the characters, all caught in some convoluted physical efforts and signalling us their emotions: struggle, will, suffering, hope, fear, and union. Among them, the firmly resolute gaze on Wrenn’s face is looking outside of the frame, apparently conscious of her destiny, her being other than a human but also other than a machine: she is the elected, her powers are unique, she can’t stand back.
Like using a Director’s camera, Rainville infuses the scene with an intense Neoclassical taste that peaks on Wrenn’s shroud. The drapery wrapping her lets the scene go on higher grounds, resounding with themes of historical, homeric, biblical precedents, definitely defining one of the absolute peaks among the huge collection gathered on Magic cards across the last thirty years.