Richard Wright Interview

Welcome back to our fortieth interview in our series There’s No Magic Without Art!

This week we had the pleasure of talking with artist Richard Wright, who has illustrated 75 Magic cards since the original Ravnica set.

Here’s what Richard told us.

Grow from the Ashes © Wizards of the Coast

Tell us a little about how you got into art, and Magic more specifically.

I always enjoyed painting and drawing. One of my earliest memories is finger painting at nursery school. I guess everyone is into it at that age but I just never grew (up) out of it. Once I started attending proper school I didn’t find the other classes very interesting – it all seemed too much like hard work.

After school I went on to study Art & Design at art college. My first job was as a graphic designer, but I still wanted to be an artist so I would spend all my free time painting and eventually was able to find work as an illustrator for Games Workshop. I then worked at a video games company and that’s where I started learning 3d software and also photoshop.

A few years later, two friends of mine were doing illustrations for Magic The Gathering. They had a lot of cards to do so I asked if I could help out with some of the environment cards. I think this was probably around the time of the first Ravnica set. The guys at Wizards liked my work and started sending me my own cards to work on. So I got into it by chance really.

Austere Command © Wizards of the Coast

Were you familiar with the game before?

No. I’d heard the name but didn’t really know anything about it. I think that helped me to not be intimidated by all the other amazing artwork and just do my own thing.

Give us a brief description of your painting process.

I read the brief while looking thru the World Guide. The World Guide is a 200+ page pdf full of amazing art that the team over at Wizards puts together for each set. Then I begin collecting reference photos of skies, locations, props and also photos that have the right mood or lighting. I also look thru other artists work for inspiration or to use as a benchmark.

At some point while looking for reference I begin messing around in photoshop – maybe just a quick sketch to quickly figure out the composition or using photos as a starting point. There’s usually a few false starts but eventually something clicks and I work this up a little further until I’m happy enough to send to the Art Director. The final image is usually a combination of 3d, photos and paint.

Hazoret’s Monument © Wizards of the Coast

You’ve mentioned that “it’s easy to fall in love with an idea only to find you hate it the next day”. Considering the tight deadlines, there’s not always time to step away and come back to a painting later. How do you learn to deal with this as an artist?

I don’t think I’ve learnt to deal with it completely and it’s very frustrating. I want each picture to be better than the last and it doesn’t often work out that way. So I try and tell myself it’s just a picture and to not take it too seriously. You have to balance wanting to do the best you can with not going crazy. It gets easier with each piece. And the failures are forgotten as soon as I start a fresh piece with a new chance to redeem myself.

The new basic lands you did for Guilds of Ravnica are reworks of the same lands you did for the original Ravnica set. What was it like to return to this setting so many years later?

I was excited and at first thought – Cool! This is going to be fun! Plus, I won’t really have to do any sketches, just change the lighting and mood – But once I started I realised I didn’t really like the old paintings. So it was sort of frustrating. I couldnt really change the composition or fix anything, just alter the mood. In addition the old PSDs were all on one or very few layers. In the end though I had a lot of fun. It was an interesting challenge.

Isolated Chapel © Wizards of the Coast

I love the composition of Kraken of the Straits, with the boat in the corner and the image off-centered from the sea level. How did you come up with this image?

Thank you. A lot of the credit should also go to the Art Directors and Writers. For this and any of my other images. The brief they send out along with the world guides help so much. For this painting I read the brief and could already see what it was going to look like. I was probably remembering something stored away from watching a movie or tv show. I modeled the monster and also the boat in 3D to figure out the composition and framing and then looked for reference photos where the camera is half in and half out of water.

Mana Confluence really captures the “mana” aspect really well, and I also really like this perspective. Do you recall painting this one?

I vaguely remember doing it and that it was a struggle to show the other worldliness of Nyx and still be able to see the waterfalls. Took a few attempts to find the right balance.

Kraken of the Straits © Wizards of the Coast

What were some of the most challenging cards you painted, and why?

They’re all challenging in their own way. At least the first time you tackle a new subject or location. Anything that you haven’t yet painted and solved the problems or found a technique or cheat for. I did one recently which isn’t out yet and it was 5 cards joined together to form a panorama and that was hard work because the file size was enormous and zooming out to see the whole thing meant all you could see was a really thin letter-boxed image.

On the other hand, what were the smoothest paintings, from the art description to the final piece?

Daze. The sketch was so easy it was like I was following instructions. It came together really quickly without any of the usual struggle and just needed a polish for the final.

Daze © Wizards of the Coast

Of the art you made for Magic, can you name some favorites?

Daze is my favourite probably because I didn’t really invest too much time or effort – it almost feels like someone else’s work. Usually the more effort I put in the more disappointed I am with the result.

A few others I don’t hate are Plains (from Return to Ravnica). The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale. Pearl Lake Ancient. Doubling Season. Grow from the Ashes.

Thank you for reading!


Steve Argyle Interview

Welcome to our weekly interview series, “There’s No Magic Without Art”!

For today’s interview we had the pleasure of talking with Steve Argyle, an artist that has created some of the Magic’s most beloved cards like Liliana of the VeilDeathrite Shaman or Bloodbraid Elf.

Here’s what Steve told us.

Sketch and final art for Deathrite Shaman © Wizards of the Coast

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You started out professionally as a 3D modeler in the video game industry. How did you end up in illustration, and do you still use 3D in your work today?

The route I took to become an illustrator progressed in precisely the opposite direction from how it is supposed to be done. If I write memoirs, they’ll probably be called something like “Rapid Backfire, the Story of Getting it Right the Wrongest Way.” My first “real job” was doing CGI for films – how I landed that at 19 years old is a whole other sticky and sordid story in itself.

When the studio shut down five years later, I sent out my resume out to the corners of the Earth like a swarm of padded-qualification bees searching for a fabled hive made of gold. I got some amazing offers, including one from Weta Digital to work on Lord of the Rings – yet another story – and decided to take a job with an awesome video game studio that was okay with me taking naps in the bathroom.

I got a few games under my belt, and I realized that my favorite parts were also the shortest-lived: the design and concepting in the beginning, and the marketing art at the end. After another five-years there, I foolhardily decided to try just doing the artwork part as a freelancer.

Steve Argyle © Wizards of the Coast

I had no real idea how to do that, what could go wrong? After a few months I thought “I really should go to school for this if I want to do this for real.” That lasted approximately one semester of my teachers asking me to hook them up with my old jobs.

So yeah, I went completely backward from the more typical dream-path of school, freelance, video-games, movies.

I do still abuse quite a bit of 3D in my work. Ten years of experience made me fast.

I build a lot of my reference in 3D, which helps me get realistic perspective and lighting on subjects that are impossible to photograph, like dragons, spaceships, and people smiling at me. I keep that work loose, I don’t want it to inherit too much of that 3D rendered look. The whole point is to fool people into thinking I can paint, after all.

Damia, Sage of Stone © Wizards of the Coast

Can you give us a brief description of your painting process, and how has it changed over the years?

Even after all this time, I don’t really have a step-by-step process. Each piece is a new, different, tumbling mess of chaos that somehow lands upright. I don’t know where the magic comes from, and I’m terrified it will leave me for a younger, better looking, more charming artist.

But until that happens: Sometimes I’ll start with a few dozen composition thumbnails, sometimes I’ll start with a 3D model; then fiddle around with that until I find some combination of camera angle, lighting, and pose that isn’t terrible; sometimes I’ll start with an impromptu photoshoot in the bathroom mirror – always followed by a vow to go to the gym and give up Red Vines; and sometimes I’ll simply make an offering to dark gods to grant me a vision or possess my body and do the work for me.

Far too often though they return my body in a dramatically different shape than when they borrowed it, so that’s become a last-option scenario.

Sketch and final art for Monastery Swiftspear © Wizards of the Coast

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From the skin wrinkles in Sunseed Nurturer to the texturized enveloping background in Slave of Bolas, the level of detail on your work can be hard to fully appreciate on a small card. Do you take this into consideration when creating a new piece?

Absolutlely. I craft each piece assuming that it’s going to be seen in full, glorious detail somehow. Whether that’s just online, or on a print or playmat. The tricky bit is making a piece that works both at barely-over-an-inch, and at poster-size or even bigger. Chandra Ablaze was made into a banner for Gen Con several years ago, hanging in front of the gaming hall at dozens of feet tall. That was the peak of my career, and it’s all downhill from there.

Chandra Ablaze © Wizards of the Coast

You’ve mentioned that “When I’m stuck creatively, I go to the least likely corners of nature for inspiration”. Can you name some Magic cards where this happened?

Often the analogues are easy to see once I point them out. Like Chaos Maw draws heavily from Medusa worms and deep-sea anglers. Kresh, the Bloodbraided has a sea-turtle for a shield. Most of the work I did in New Phyrexia was based on insects. The original background for Liliana of the Veil (before it became a cathedral) referenced carnivorous plants. There’s even one where I cut a cabbage in half and started there – true story.

What I’m looking for are interesting shapes, textures, color patterns, stuff like that. It usually gets abstracted out enough that you wouldn’t at first glance say “Hey, Glissa has the same sheen and color as a specific species of fly!” But hopefully some of the feeling comes through. Praetor’s Grasp has the same creepy, trapped feeling as the spiders and webs I drew my inspiration from. Inescapable Blaze has the same sense of urgent, unavoidable doom as the “have to pee but can’t wake up” dream that inspired it.

Final art for Liliana of the Veil (on the left) and ‘expanded’ art (on the right) © Wizards of the Coast

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What were the most challenging cards to paint?

Horses.

Or spells with weird effects. Stuff like Hive Mind, Conjured Currency, Forsake the Worldly, Killing Wave. Something that needs to convey the specific action of a strange spell.

Or something that already has great art, and needs a new take for a promo or reprint, like Glissa, the Traitor, Renewed Faith, Sure Strike, Jace’s Ingenuity. It’s always intimidating to tackle something that’s already iconic.

But mostly it’s Horses. Diabolical beasts conceived solely to beguile artists.

Thalia, Guardian of Thraben © Wizards of the Coast

For you, what makes a great art description?

I like the part where it says how much they’re paying me. That, and when they use my formal title: Steve Argyle, the Broken Hand, Consort of the Caffiene Kingdom, Slayer of Darkest Chocolate, Planeswalker of Pixels, Fearless Voyager of Economy Class, the Infamous Cardboard Vandal, Sleepless Sage, and Ravisher of Ramen. It usually requires them to add about ten sticky-notes.

I prefer fairly open-ended art descriptions. Stuff like “We exalt in your omnipotent genius, and bow before your flawless judgement. Bless us with your magic.” Though it’s often paraphrased as “we need a wizard-guy doing a thing with fire or something. Go nuts.”

Somberwald Sage © Wizards of the Coast

Your DeviantArt gallery is full of hilarious comments well worth reading: Being composed entirely of metal has it’s ups and downs. Cellulite is a thing of the past. A fortune is saved on body-shimmer. And, copper looks a little like a weird tan. But, turtle wax is more expensive and time-consuming than moisturizer. The bathroom scale is unabashedly cruel. Airport security is a nightmare of biblically epic proportions.”

Where does this aptitude for words (and blossoming creativity) come from?

It’s all thanks to the horrific alien parasite tightly coiled around my brain, slowly consuming me in an agonizing nightmare of impending dementia. But it poops funny ideas. There’s always a silver lining!

Bloodbraid Elf © Wizards of the Coast

Is there any project you’d like to plug? Where can our readers find you?

Like some sort of reprehensible octo-mom, I have given life to many projects, only to neglect and/or abandon them. But they are, in the strictest technical sense, alive. I’ve got prints and playmats on my website.

I have a Patreon for new tokens, and you can get any of the lineup at Cardamajigs. I have a line of designs for Cubamajigs as well. I did a weekly livestream called Sketch N’ Skotch Skwednesdays for two years. It’s currently on hiatus, but there are about a million hours of old episodes to watch. I’m putting together a Kickstarter soon, so look for that in a month or so.

You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (sometimes – I kind of hate Instagram.) I have a Deviantart and an Artstation gallery. But the best place to find my work is of course, my website.

Thank you for reading!


Lars Grant-West Interview

How does a tile laying worker end up strangled in a Magic card?

Can you trade a trilobite fossil for Magic cards?

These are peculiar questions, because Lars Grant-West is a peculiar artist, one that has created art for over 100 Magic cards.

Curious about the answers? read on!

Grixis Charm © Wizards of the Coast

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How did you become an artist?

My interest in fantasy came as a child, I was very interested in natural sciences and I drew from a very early age as many artists do. I was fortunate to have parents who were supportive of that.

I grew up in an area where there wasn’t a whole lot of nature, but my father used to bring me to the Museum of Natural History in New York. That sort of infected my life ever since, I’ve always had an interest in dinosaurs and skeletons and plants and rocks and things like that.

Did you go to art school?

I went to the School of Visual Arts in New York City. When I left school, we would send out flyers and postcards to art directors, and you had to find their names somehow as there was no internet to look them up on. Larry Smith, who was the art director for Dungeons and Dragons, was the one art director who actually got back to me and I still have the postcard he wrote me.

He said he wasn’t ready to use my work, but he took the time to critique every picture I sent him of my work, and that impacted me profoundly.

The studio © Lars Grant-West

Did you keep approaching other art directors?

Well, oddly at that point a situation came up where I had a day job working in a zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, where I lived at the time. I was there designing and building exhibits, they would hand me site plans of an area and we’d work out the flow of the pathway and figure out the parameters that each animal needed for its enclosure. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to balance the needs of visitors, animals and keepers. After that we’d build the hardscape elements like rock work and pools.

And did you keep on painting through this period?

I started getting jobs from magazines and books that were geared specifically towards kids in the United States, and I really enjoyed doing that. I have a very longtime friend named John Foster who is an illustrator, and at the time he was working with another art director at Wizards of the Coast. He roped me into a few different jobs that were very interesting, and then I ended up working on Dungeons and Dragons. I was still working full time and then doing the illustration work when I went home at night.

I think the art director for Dungeons Dragons knew the art director for Magic, Dana Knutson, and that’s how I got my first Magic job, for a card called Toxin Sliver.

Artful Maneuver © Wizards of the Coast

What Mediums were you using at that time?

I was painting the basically the way I am now. Generally, either with oils or oils with acrylic under painting.

For Magic, would you mail them the original painting?

I did for a while. I tend to paint on the large side, and some of the paintings I sent were probably pretty big for them to handle, like Tormod’s Crypt. There was a point where I didn’t get some paintings back, so I decided I needed to come up with something new, so I started photographing on my own and sending the files, and that just made everything quicker.

I imagine you must take some high-quality pictures…

I have a stand set up where I just slide the painting across the floor and I use a macro lens so I’m taking say maybe 20 shots, and Photoshop assembles them all and so I end up with a with a super high-resolution photo.

Stoneshock Giant © Wizards of the Coast

For how long did you keep at your day job in the zoo?

Oh, that lasted around 12 years. I would get home from work covered in concrete and just exhausted. A lot of the work I was doing was very physical and demanding. As the illustration work took off, I preferred that, so I ended up talking them into starting an art department and I stayed there for another six years. I did a lot of graphic design, photography, but not as much of the more physical work, which left me some steam to do freelance work when I got home.

I got to be art director of the zoo for six years, and around 2006 I left. I started doing freelance work full-time and never went back.

That must have had a long-lasting influence on your work.

Oh, yes, very strongly. I mean, a lot of the work I do is creature work, it all ties back to that museum experience, looking at bones, anatomy, and animal behavior. It’s funny how life works.

Lars & a giraffe © Lars Grant-West

What advice would you give to someone starting out in art today?

The thing that I like to instill in my students is the importance of figuring out what it is important to you, because it’s so easy to become a cog in the machine, like in a video game company or something like that.

The reason a lot of us get into art is because we have stories to tell and things that fascinate us, so if we’re going to be in an industry that typically doesn’t pay as well as a lot of other jobs do, you have to find something that you love in it. And I think part of that is finding a way to tell your own stories.

I have such fond memories of playing with Ghostly Prison when I was a kid…

Yeah, that’s actually me posing! The original assignment for that was a peculiar one. I think the art director at the time was Jeremy Cranford, who now works at Blizzard on Hearthstone, but the assignment for that one was to show two figures trapped behind a spectral wall.

I tend to follow descriptions pretty closely, but that one confused me a little bit, because my feeling was that if they’re trapped behind a wall, they could just go the other way. And why have two people? Is the extra person serving any purpose? So my thought was to put one figure trapped inside of this little tower instead of the wall.

Every once in a while, you run into an assignment where the art description seems to have been written by somebody who’s thinking verbally instead of visually. But nowadays more and more art directors are artists.

I’m also curious about Grixis Charm, this mysterious shape looks almost like a creature.

You know it’s funny, I didn’t realize this until I was done and saw the art at card size, but it looks to me like a fish. And now I can’t not see it.

If I remember right, the assignment for that was to draw a glowing ball of dark energy, about the size of a fist. So, in my initial sketches, of course I’m always trying to put animals and things. I put a little zombie rat standing behind, but they didn’t want that. And I thought there’s no other good way to show scale.

Sketches for Grixis Charm © Lars Grant-West

After that, I did a skull, and you know this was kind of a no-go thing for Magic at that point. So it just ended up with this little this little ball that you see in the final art. There’s not a lot of paint on that one, the background is just is just a single glaze over.

I love your Ape Token.

That was entirely digital, and it was a fun one so I’m glad you like that. I really liked working on the little necklace thing, as there was supposed to be a connection to some degree of civilization.

What about Offalsnout?

That was probably one of the most fun assignments recently. I tend to get assignments that are about realistic animals, wolves, elephants, apes, things like that. And there’s a part of me that really enjoys the silly things, I loved doing Toy Boat for example. Offalsnout was one that I got to handle fairly classically, but it was a creature that was much more made up and I really got a kick out of doing that.

Did you look at the original card?

I did. When I get to redo something I do look at the originals, I look at them in their own context, but I try not to look too hard at them. You want to be respectful of the artist who came before you, but also realize that at some point you’re going to get your work redone.

What about Lathnu Hellion?

Are you familiar with the story of Lorena Bobbitt?

No.

Ok. In the United States there was a woman who cut her husband’s penis off and it ended up getting reattached believe it or not. This is a little bit roundabout, but so this there is this creature called a Bobbit Worm, and it’s a very scary worm.

It’s from a family of worms called Polychaete, which are prehistoric, they’re from before the dinosaurs, but they’re these terrifying worms that live in the ocean. If you look at a few pictures of those you will see the inspiration for that creature. This is another time where your knowledge of science was useful.

What’s your favorite?

I think Tormod’s Crypt is still my favorite. The art director was Jeremy Jarvis, and the assignment was a mausoleum with a door open and perhaps a mist coming out. In my head, I pictured a very silent, very grey landscape, and this thing sort of lifting itself out of the earth and floating perfectly silently across this valley.

I sent a few sketches and Jeremy Jarvis said, ‘I love that idea but it doesn’t work with the card’. I asked if I could just paint it bigger and make it the way I wanted outside of what they were going to use on the card, and he said yes. So I came up with something that they liked and I really enjoyed as well. It also represents a lot of the painting that I like to do.

Tormod’s Crypt © Wizards of the Coast

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I mentioned Toy Boat before, there is a side of me that really likes that kind of sarcastic humor. A lot of the cards that I like are not particularly popular. I loved Monstrify, which is supposed to be a guy with a hat made of frogs, and a spell made one of them huge, and that was fun.

I really loved the potential for Ixalan, as soon as I read the style guide I thought, ‘Man, I really hope I get to do a Theropod, like a T-Rex or something like that’ and I think all I got was sauropods or herbivores, so I never I never got to do something that was kind of the quintessential meat eating dinosaur.

Trapjaw Kelpie was another one that I really loved doing. Vein Drinker. Gorgon Flail. There are a lot of them…

© Lars-Grant West

The most challenging card?

The most challenging one for me was Glimmervoid. I thought I had pissed off the art director, because I remember thinking, “What did I do?”

The assignment was to draw a featureless metal plane lit by the light of four sons, and then it had to have an hexagonal grid going across these rolling hills. I just remember thinking, ‘how am I going to do that…?’ If it was a flat plane, that would have been fine, but as soon as you start trying to make that go across hills, it got very difficult.

Glimmervoid © Wizards of the Coast

I’m going to say this, but I’m not sure it’s true: I think that that may have been the first Magic land that was fully generated and lit digitally through 3D software. I would love to paint that traditionally now. Well, I don’t know that I would to be completely honest [Laughing]

I think at that point I was still doing my best just to answer the assignment, and I don’t know that I had found much stylistic individuality at that point. So I was fine I was fine just just doing what the client asked for.

I guess an upside of challenging assignments is that you get to push for solutions outside your comfort zone.

I think you’re right. I have never been what I would call a clever illustrator. There’re so many Magic artists whose work I admire immensely. One of them is as Steve Belledin, and he tends to get a lot of assignments that are conceptually difficult, and he handles them beautifully, and I think he’s often underappreciated for that ability.

For example, I look at Surgical Extraction, and he’s got those same metal plates, he didn’t have the rendering issues because it’s on a fairly flat surface, but I wish I’d handled them that way in Glimmervoid.

Surgical Extraction (detail) by Steven Belledin © Wizards of the Coast

You know, they wanted the reflectivity and all that, and for it to appear almost searingly perfect, and I think I satisfied that assignment, but at the cost of my artistic individuality, whereas Steve has a way of doing these things and making pieces that are brilliantly conceived and executed at the same time.

Do you build some of the models to use as reference for painting?

Yes, I do, I enjoy doing clay models, and also doing digital models in the computer and then actually 3D printing them.

Do you have some Magic related story you’d like to share?

I ran into an Air Force guy that in his spare time would go and dig trilobite fossils. We made a trade where I gave him a full set of artist’s proofs and he sent me a box of trilobites he dug up.

I did have a guy tiling my kitchen floor, and I asked him if he would be willing to model for me. He kind of looked at me for a second and said, ‘You don’t mean naked do you?’ [laughing] So, the guy being strangled in Bane of Progress is actually a tile guy.

Bane of Progress © Wizards of the Coast

I don’t really love that piece, I think I could have done a lot more, I got obsessed with the detail of the creature, but I don’t like the way it looks at card size.

Goblin Balloon Brigade was another one that was a lot of fun. The assignment said to do a group of goblins in a balloon made from animal hides. So I asked the art director if I could make it all out of one animal hide instead of multiples, so that’s how I came up with the idea for the frog. I thought that would be kind of fun and quirky at the same time.

Thank you for reading!

We wholeheartedly thank Lars for his time, kindness and passion.

You can find more about Lars’ work on his website, and you absolutely should follow his page on Instagram and Facebook,


Jason Felix Interview

Welcome to the 38th installment of our Magic artists interview series, ‘There’s No Magic Without Art’.

For today’s interview we talked with artist Jason Felix, who has created over 100 Magic cards since the Zendikar expansion.

Here’s what Jason told us.

Tell us a little about how you got into art, and Magic more specifically.

I have always created things as far as I can remember. My parents and extended family were not artists, so they viewed my interest with “Oh! That’s what kids do.” More like a phase, but it was not.

What has been most important and remains the same all these years is that I have always been creative, curious, and imaginative. This mindset can be applied in so many ways and also for career choices. My focus tends to be art.

Sketch and final version of Hydroid Krasis © Wizards of the Coast

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Working with MTG happened in 2008 when I was attending a comic book show called San Diego Comic Con. Yeah, a small ant hill of a show many years ago that is now the size of a godzilla!!! At the time during the event, I was just presenting a concept artwork portfolio and had a small booth to display my work at.

Someone from Hasbro walked pass my booth, stopped, and flipped through the portfolio. A small chat, business card swap, and a hand shake happened. A week later I got a call and was offered small gig to create concept artwork for the Magic style guides, specifically Zendikar.

Runaway Steam-Kin © Wizards of the Coast

Were you familiar with the game?

Yep, grew up playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) as a kid. “PRE” Magic days. So the whole world of fantasy art was a big influence and inspiration all these years. I wanted to be a fantasy artist growing up, but destiny had other things in store for me such as doing video game development and film work. Yet, destiny gave me a Magic gift after all!

Do you recall your first card assignment?

Hm, first assignment? Yes, Ob Nixilis, the Fallen. A dream came true to be finally asked & paid to create a bad-ass enraged demon. Yes please!

Ob Nixilis, the Fallen © Wizards of the Coast

Give us a brief description of your painting process.

Key word: Mixed Media. I use traditional and digital tools. Traditionally, I draw with graphite. Then switch to canvas to paint with acrylics and oils. Then switch over to digital, bringing over the traditional work to be finalized in the digital arena.

Sometimes a piece will stay all traditional, some are all digital, etc. Just depends on my schedule and time constraints to how I can work. But, in a nutshell, there you go!

What makes for a great art description?

“Less is more” so the artist is able to have a platform to contribute more visually and design wise.

Creature design of Eldrazi’s and their home environments © Wizards of the Coast

Hydroid Krasis is a very cool card of yours from the latest expansion, and it’s seeing a lot of play. What can you tell us about this Jellyfish Hydra Beast?

It’s always super sweet to get a card that people like and want to play with. “Luck of the draw” as one might say. So thanks to the powers that be! The footnote that was sent over to work on stated: “A jellyfish… floating in the air(not in water) with traditional hydra features attacking some soldiers”.

Well all righty then! The door was wide open to interpret and design the creature which is really nice. In terms of creation, I just read the description… scratched my head, laughed a bit, and started drawing. Eventually switched to canvas and then finally to digital. Always a blast to envision creatures, especially a strange Hydra breed so my inner AD&D kid is proud!

Hydroid Krasis © Wizards of the Coast

What were some of the most challenging cards you painted, and why?

I really cannot narrow down on any ‘one’ card because each presents their own unique challenge. It’s true! For example I enjoy designing and painting creatures, but that’s just the design aspect.

Now factor in composition, lighting, mood, vfx, what is happening, a narrative, etc. Each element requires the artist’s undivided attention. So per piece, some elements go quicker while others can become an obstacle.

On the other hand, what were the smoothest paintings, from the art description to the final piece?

Excellent question, I wish creating artwork was a smooth process. It’s not. No joke, its true!!! Please refer to the answer above.

All is Dust © Wizards of the Coast

Of the art you made for Magic, can you name some favorites?

All is Dust, Endless One, Contraption Set of 9 cards, Kozilek’s Channeler, Sheoldred, Whispering One, and of course thee Hydroid Krasis!

You have a new project on Kickstarter called Salvaged: The Lost Ones. It depicts “humanity merging with machines and beyond”. What can you tell us about it?

Thanks for noticing and mentioning. Yes! This project is an ongoing art series that started back in 2001. An experiment to mix together traditional and digital media to find a new way of creating art. Subject wise: Mixing humans with machinery were a natural fit and now more relevant to our current embrace of technology.

Ironically these explorations lead to my current workflow of creating MTG artwork presently. So Salvaged, a personal project, opens the door to completed freedom to create freely without restrictions, to experiment, to be bold, and to have an unfiltered voice.

This time around, I am embedding the book project with a narrative so it goes beyond just being another art book. For curious minds, you can view the artwork and campaign here.

Unstable Contraptions © Wizards of the Coast

Drag the slider to the left and right to see both images

Is there any Magic related stories you’d like to share with us?

Over the years, I have discovered that the MTG community is really amazing. After attending various MTG GP events it became clear just how active, inquisitive, curious, friendly, diverse, open minded and smart community is. It’s refreshing to be around such good people and gives me hope for the world at large. Thanks to all, keep on rocking it!

Thank you for reading!


Gavin Verhey Interview

Not all kids want to be actors, astronauts or athletes.

Some kids dream of making Magic: The Gathering cards.

And some of them make it happen.

Today we’re proud to share our interview with Gavin Verhey, 28, Product Architect at Wizards of the Coast.

Gavin has worked on multiple products over the last 7 years, including leading design for Commander 2017 and 2018, and leading development for Battlebond.

Here’s what Gavin told us.

© Gavin Verhey

You wanted to work at Wizards since you were ten?

Yeah, it’s totally wild. I was at a Wizards of the Coast game store, back when those existed, and the person behind the counter recommended Magic to me and my brother. My mom asked if this was something I’d be interested in, and that one answer I gave – of yes – might have been more life changing than anything I had said up to that point, or perhaps since, because Magic has crafted who I am.

Around what set was this?

Right around Planeshift, from the Invasion block, so that would have been in 2001. I started with the starter 2000 set and they had a little CD-ROM you put in, I remember playing through the tutorial in there and watching a CD with awesome clips from the Pro Tour. I thought it was the coolest thing, so it hooked me in right away.

Both me and my brother were homeschooled, and Magic was amazing because it really brought us closer and gave us this great thing that we could talk about and spend endless time building decks and trading cards, as we had our own collections that could not be touched. [laughing]

All cards in Starter 2000 were reprints from Sixth Edition, Portal and Starter.
Source: mtg.gamepedia

So you kept on playing?

I grew up living in Seattle, which is fortunate, because that’s where Wizards is. Back then we had these big Prereleases and Wizards employees would often be there. So, at the Odyssey Prerelease, Randy Buehler [At the time V.P. of R&D] was there.

I went up to Randy and said, ‘Hey Randy, I want to work for you. I’m ready, let’s do this, where do I start?’ Randy looks at me really seriously, and says, ‘Okay kid, you’re going to need two things: the first is a college degree,’ and my heart just sinks, I’m 11 years old and that is going to take forever.

But the second thing he says is, ‘You’re going to need to be someone we recognize and that we know is good, to be a pro player or something like this, because we often pick the people who we want to come and work for R&D’.

At that moment, I committed myself towards going Pro. I qualified for my first Pro Tour when I was 16-years-old, started college two years early here in the States, and then it all just basically went like how Randy told me if you can believe it or not.

That’s film-worthy material.

It really is. If I told this story on television or in a film, I think a lot of people would think it’s made up, but it’s the dream that I always wanted, and now I get to live it.

Young Gavin Verhey
© Gavin Verhey

How has Magic changed since then?

The number of players playing Magic today is just an order of magnitude larger. I’m very nostalgic for playing through Invasion, Odyssey, Onslaught, Mirrodin… I will see a Kavu Titan or a Skirk Commando, or something like Bonesplitter, and it feel this really strong nostalgia. One of my goals as a designer is to create that, I want the players who start playing today to look back in 10 years and be like, ‘Oh man, remember Guilds of Ravnica?’

Magic is a very interesting when it comes to nostalgia, because I could ask three different people if they were nostalgic about goblins, and while they would all say yes, one person’s thinking about their Goblin King deck from back when they started playing in Alpha, one person’s thinking about their Onslaught goblin tribal deck and the last is thinking about the goblin deck that they’re playing in Standard right now.

If an 11-year-old kid came up to you and asked the same question today, would you give him the same answer Randy gave to you?

About two years ago I took the ferry to this tiny little island here in Washington. I was there for a totally unrelated reason, but I stopped by the game store and, of course, Friday Night Magic (FNM) was going on.

It looked nothing like your average FNM, these kids ranging from 10 to 15 years old are all playing with their homebrew decks, some of them have 80 cards and unsleeved, and it looks very much like Magic did when I started playing.

Young Gavin with friends.
© Gavin Verhey

At the end of it, a kid and his Mom were talking to me and he asked, ‘Hey, I want to come work for Wizards someday’. And he’s probably about ten, eleven, twelve years old. ‘How do I do it?’ he asks. I gave him exactly the advice that Randy gave me, with a few updates, and that was this like unbelievable serendipitous moment. Inspiring that kind of thing is one of the greatest things about this job, you really get to change lives.

Do you take that into consideration when designing?

You know, when I was in the Philippines recently, they said something that stuck with me: Magic would be nothing without the gathering. So, absolutely, we’re always trying to find ways to bring people together with Magic.

Battlebond, Conspiracy and Commander are good examples of this as new things that we’ve been trying to really get people to play together, because Magic is fun playing one-on-one, but the camaraderie is amazing. With Battlebond, we specifically designed it to have what we call ‘high five moments’.

Is complexity the biggest obstacle on getting new players?

We’ve found that if someone wants to play multiple times, usually we’ve got them as a player for a really long time. It’s a matter of getting people to stick with it, and that initial hurdle can be very hard. There’re all these old cards, all these events and decks that have been played over time, and if you’re starting out it can be overwhelming. So we do tons of work on our new player products to make them approachable and understandable.

Welcome Decks 2019
© Wizards of the Coast

How do you measure how successful these new player products are?

One of the challenges is gathering data. A lot of online games can very easily tell how long people played for, who’s buying what, among other things, we just don’t get that. For example: Someone walks into Walmart, buys a Planeswalker deck, plays it a few times and then stops playing, and we never hear from that person again, we don’t know that they existed. But we’re doing a lot of studies to collect this data and learn what we can.

Do you do any kind of blind playtesting [testing products with people not familiar with the game]?

Yes, we absolutely do. There are some companies we work with in Seattle that recruit people who had never played Magic (and there’s a long list all the way from ‘never played Magic’ to ‘not played any games’). We bring them in, hand them introductory products, and basically just walk out of the room and let them figure it out.

A Shivan Dragon called Mitzy lives in Wizards of the Coast Headquarters.
© Julia Sumpter

The things you see during these tests will just blow your mind. One time, there were people who didn’t realize that your decks needed to be upside down. Since there wasn’t anything instructing them to shuffle their decks and put it face down, they just figured it would be face up for whatever reason.

And then there was one game that I will never forget; this one player attacked with a Shivan Dragon, no blocks were declared, and he said, ‘okay, take 17’, and we’re like, ‘what?!’ We later realized that they thought the expansion symbol – the W17 from the Welcome Deck 17 – overrode the power for whatever reason, so it was a 17 power creature. There’s things you would never imagine, and that really informed us.

A crown was added for dramatic effect.

One thing we also noticed is that cards like Divine Verdict, which destroy an attacking or blocking creature, are mega feel bad teaching cards. What would happen over and over is that a player would not attack, and the other player – being maybe more experienced – would remind them that they should attack if the opportunity arises, and when they did, they then casted Divine Verdict and killed off their creature, and it’s like this horrible moment where they think that you just tricked them. And all these tiny incremental things we’re always looking at improving.

So just to take a step back, what was your first position at Wizards?

I started at what now would be someone on our Play Design team, basically playtesting upcoming sets from a competitive angle and figuring out which decks and cards were strong and too powerful.

After that, I worked on a game we were launching called Kaijudo, and I did a brief stint on our brand team, where I learned about how we name products and how we work with other vendors, and that was a really great window into learning how the entire process at Wizards works.

© Gavin Verhey

After that I moved onto a design role, coming up with early versions of sets. I’m now one of the main people on our Product Architecture team, where we figure out what our upcoming products are going to be. To give you an example of what we do, if a designer is working on the individual Commander cards, I might be the one telling them we should do tribal this year, and some characters we could go with. That said, I still do design work too.

Does having an overview of the entire product line help you connect them?

Yeah, we want to look across many years and figure out how they’re all going to connect, and make sure we’re not doing some themes too often. We also want some themes to play into each other, and we make sure that sets contain seed cards that set up for future themes.

If we’re doing a graveyard set, maybe we want to make sure that a few sets earlier there is some cards that care about the graveyard. A unique thing about Magic design is that we work really far in advance, because we print everything up and ship it around the world, so everything from the next nine months of Magic is basically finished, can’t touch it at all. I’ve been in meetings today already as far out as 2022, and in some years I’ll talk about 2023, 2024, 2025.

Ben Hayes, Sam Stoddard, Mark Rosewater and Gavin Verhey, in that order.

You’re a bit of a time traveler, and it kind of works both ways, even though what we release is very much in our past, what players think about it is very much in our present. As feedback starts coming in on a set like Guilds of Ravnica, or Ravnica Allegiance or the Guild Kits, we now know what the players are saying and will apply it to future sets.

If you’re always working years in advance, isn’t the answer to current problems often late?

Right, and that’s one of the hardest parts about my job. People will ask why haven’t we done ‘X’, or fixed ‘Y’, and a lot of the time we have, it just hasn’t made it out to you yet, and you just have to have to be patient, which is of course not always a very satisfying answer, but quite often that is the answer.

AAAAAAAHH!
© Gavin Verhey

With the latest challenger decks you shortened the period it normally takes you to design a product. Is this something you’ll do more often?

They’re top level standard decks, but we have to be able to see what the real world results are before we can start doing them. Event decks were made following our normal timelines and ended up not being as exciting for players because they were built without that knowledge.

We made a bunch of compromises so we could make it work, but by squeezing it basically as tight as we possibly could, we got it down all the way to 5 months, which still sounds like a ludicrously long amount of time, but when you consider printing and shipping, all these things really add up.

So for Challenger Decks there’s no decklist inside the insert for the product, and that’s a thing we normally do, but we just had to cut it out to save time. While that sounds like one very minor thing, it’s doing that two hundred times over to make sure that we can get the project as quick to players as possible.

The (popular) Challenger Decks, released in April 2018, are competitive Standard decks playable right out of the box.
© Wizards of the Coast

How reliably can you predict how the competitive decks will end up looking like?

First, the Play Design team [responsible for competitive play] is still new. We’ve only seen their impact on Standard for a few sets, they started in Guilds of Ravnica, and so far they’re hitting it out of the park.

With that said, historically, we’ve been very good about figuring out what cards are going to be strong and the shape of archetypes. To give you an example, with Guilds of Ravnica we probably had two, three or four different control decks we’re all playing with.

Which one of those ends up being played in the real world ultimately comes down to how the metagame shakes out, and that kind of nuance is very hard to predict internally, because there’s 15 play designers and millions of Magic players. It’s not that often when a card really surprises us, but every now and then it does happen.

I guess the ban hammer is always the last resort…

Banning cards in standard is really bad for a number of reasons. For one, we just sold you the cards, you should be able to play with them. The other reason is it messes up all the hard work we’ve put in, and kind of just takes things off the rails and sends them careening down a cliff.

In Standard, when we started banning things like Emrakul, then all the testing we had done with it in mind is taken out the window, so whole chunks of the metagame are missing, and now there’s decks that aren’t balancing each other.

Banning cards that we missed feels slightly less bad because we didn’t count for them anyway, but when there are cards we counted on, it drastically impacts how the metagame ends up looking. So yeah, it’s bad for both the players and us.

You’ve been testing new products on smaller markets, how will this impact the type of products we might see going forward?

We talked earlier about how we learn about what’s working and what’s not. For a very long time, the answer was kind of just looking at anecdotal data, looking at sales, and try and figure it out, and we could do better than that.

This is the year 2019, and we have a lot of different tools at our disposal, and one of them is just trying products out and seeing what we learn from them.

It can be a little confusing to hear about a product that has a short run, or exists only in certain places, but you’re going to see us do this. A great example is the theme boosters: These are 35 card packs that contain cards just from one color. We didn’t know if players would like them, if the price and contents were right, if it should have more or less cards, and so we put them into Walmart’s and ran a test.

Theme Boosters
© Wizards of the Coast

We collected data on how they did, how they sold and what players thought about them. Turns out things were pretty much good to go, so we just stepped in and did that for Guilds of Ravnica and Ravnica Allegiance, and now you can see them going forward. But if that initial test had gone poorly, we probably would have just pulled the plug and not done them. It’s that kind of thing they’re going to see us do.

One thing I ask of players is, as we test more and more things out, if something doesn’t show up in your market, the answer is just that we have to put them in the best test environment possible, but know that if something is successful, then we will replicate it and do it on a large scale.

Will Magic Arena play a big part on that future?

Absolutely. I want to clarify for everyone: Paper Magic is stronger than it’s ever been, and it’s not going anywhere. We’re going to do tons and tons with paper, but Arena is just off to an amazingly strong start, it’s blowing the doors off and we want to support that too.

There might be some unique stuff that comes down the pipe at some point for Arena; but even just looking at the tabletop space, we launched a Magic boardgame which it has no Magic-like gameplay, but uses the Magic flavor to create something.

You’ll see us continue to expand and touch things that are different from the card game. If we look back in 20 years on today, I bet we will say that we were testing and learning so much, that we ended up with a lot of where we get to in 20 years from what we’re doing right now.

Gavin dueling with a young Planeswalker
© Wizards of the Coast

In a recent interview, you mentioned we’re likely to see more Premium Products going forward, can you tell us more about this?

Earlier we talked about testing and learning, and we have this new channel of selling things directly to consumers. We’ve done a little bit of it with the Mythic Edition so far, and this is a chance for us to test some things out and see if there’s an audience for it. It doesn’t all have to be high-end stuff, some of it could be less expensive. This allows us to really get clear data on how the product did, so maybe if it goes really well on there, we launch it out to more people and put it in stores.

I’ll give an example: Let’s say we live in a world where we never made Commander Decks, this never existed. Maybe what we would try is releasing a Commander product direct to consumer, see if people wanted it at all, and if the answer is yes, then we could make start making products worldwide and put them in stores. It’s a great way for us to make a small quantity and just try it out and see if people are enjoying it or not.

So yeah, I think you will continue to see us experiment with selling things that way.

Masterpiece cards from the Guilds of Ravnica Mythic Edition

Magic has been around for 25 years, yet you don’t seem to have it all figured out, you’re trying out more stuff than ever before.

You know, our players have evolved as they’ve gotten older, as you and I have gotten older, and we want to make sure that our game evolves too. It’d be very easy to just repeat and do the same things that we’ve always done, but we’re always asking ourselves questions and trying things out.

We don’t want to get complacent, we want to keep innovating. One of the things that has made Magic so successful from the very beginning is that innovation, we were the first Trading Card Game, the first to do premium foil cards.

I remember the first time I saw double-faced card in Innistrad, my mind was blown! people were freaking out about how we could print a card on both sides, wondering how is it going to be played, and now it’s just normal, so people wonder what’s gonna be the next wild thing we’re going to do.

Would you say you’re willing to take more risks?

Our CEO, Chris Cocks, talks about it as having castles and boats. The idea being that Magic is an amazing Castle, but we also want to be able to send out boats of exploration and see what else might be on the horizon.

I feel like we have a very safe Castle, we know we can release four sets a year and do great, but we are sending out a lot of boats to go and explore these other uncharted worlds, and that’s where the risks are being taken.

It’s understood that sometimes we’re going to send up those boats and the crew members are not going to come back, [laughing] or they’re going to come back and say, ‘hey, there’s monsters down there, let’s not do that’. But sometimes we’re going to find new and uncharted territory, and you got to take those risks to be able to reap those rewards.

Treasure Cruise, art by Cynthia Sheppard
© Wizards of the Coast

Now for a change of pace, can you name your favorite top 5 cards designed by yourself?

This is this is so hard for me, I can already tell you I’m going to miss a card that I love. I will give you my top five in no particular order.

First and foremost is Havoc Festival from Return to Ravnica. Havoc Festival and Ultimate Price were the first two cards I ever designed that made it to print and I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for that card, just a fun chaotic multiplayer card.

Next up, one card that most people probably never heard of, called Serene Remembrance. It’s not a very exciting card, so why is this one important? Well, I told you I wanted to be a game designer at Wizards since I was a little kid, and so I started making a ton of Magic cards, and for my birthday parties we would make our own Magic sets for our hangout sessions and sleepovers.

After I got the job at Wizards, I came home to my parents for American Thanksgiving one year, and my Mom handed me a box with all the cards we had written up years and years ago when I was 10, 11, 12 years old. I looked through them and they were just ridiculous, there were cards like a land that could tap for two mana or draw two cards… a card that cost a single red mana and would deal five damage…. But I found this one, and it was Serene Remembrance (not by that name but by that effect).

I thought, since I was working on Gatecrash at that point, that this would be a really good fit, so I came back, pitched it, and it got printed exactly as I suggested, which almost never happens for a Magic card. So that card has a very special place to me.

Monastery Mentor is a card that has gone on to do amazingly powerful things and really means a lot, but it went through a very long process to get there. It got turned into an artifact, and then a blue enchantment, and then a four mana creature, then a two mana creature… eventually it ended up back at three mana, which is pretty unusual.

Number four: I’m a huge fan of Kamigawa, so I’m very proud of Yuriko. I finally got a Ninja Lord out there in Command 2018! I had to fight for her a little bit, but she’s been a fan favorite which is awesome. I love ninjas and love throwing Kamigawa references.

My last one would have to be something from Battlebond, and it’s so hard to choose a one specific card, but I guess if I did I would probably choose Stunning Reversal, which is a card that isn’t played a ton, but it’s just really unique.

I was trying to capture this feeling of how you come back from near death, like that moment where you’re playing a fighting game and you grab the ledge, and you took 100 % damage, but can still come back and win. I think it captures it really well.

So what was that card you mentioned you loved but left out of this top 5?

Okay, so this is a card that has put so many smiles on so many faces, it’s a Conspiracy where if you play with all the cards you drafted, all your lands tap for every color, and I just love this, the stories that come out of it are like nothing else in Magic, and as a game designer that’s what we live for, and I try and do that with every card I touch.

As a player, what sort of playstyle do you tend towards, Control?

Yeah, I’ve always been a blue player, I love playing control decks. But one of the interesting things about working in an R&D is you have to be really good about playing anything.

One of the easiest ways to just incinerate hours of my life is to dust off some box in my collection, and inside will be some combo deck from six years ago, and I’ll just spend like two hours goldfishing it because I just can’t help myself, I love a good combo deck.

I’ve got many versions of Storm, Dredge, Mind’s Desire and Heartbeat decks just in my closet, and yeah, I get to those and my time just gets incinerated. [Laughs]

A beautiful shot by Gavin in the Swiss Alps

Biggest challenges for Magic today?

There’s two that really come to mind. One is complexity, which we already touched on. The other is this: there are more things competing for your attention than ever before.

When Magic came out it was the first thing of its ilk, and there wasn’t nearly as much entertainment out there competing for your attention. Now, Magic not only has tons of other games to fight against, from digital to tabletop, but one of Magic’s biggest competitors is also stuff like Netflix, Hulu, and social media, and Magic is a time intensive thing.

We’re trying to find ways to make sure that it fits in, and Magic: The Gathering Arena is a great example of that, where you could sit down and play a few games in minutes.

Also, as the community gets bigger and bigger, trying to address everything is difficult because information travels so fast and sometimes you’re just going to make some people unhappy sometimes as you make others happy.

There’s plenty of challenges for Magic, but the good news is I see a really bright future. My goal is to die of old age and Magic still being alive.

Real Planeswalkers take the train.
© Wizards of the Coast

Any closing thoughts?

Magic’s community means so much to me. Thank you all so much for all the discussions and comments, because I know at your core everyone just wants what’s best for Magic.

I travel a lot, and almost everywhere I go I find people playing Magic, and we have this universal game where I can sit down and play against someone and neither of us knows each other’s language, but we can play together and understand what we’re saying, it’s just amazing.

Thank you all for helping making Magic what it is today, because my job wouldn’t mean anything without all of you out there. 2019 is a really exciting year, we’ve got some really mind-blowing stuff lined up and I can’t wait for you to get your hands on it!

Thank you for reading!

We want to thank Gavin for his time and kindness, and for his contagious passion for the game.

If you don’t yet, we highly recommend you check out Gavin’s Tumblr, where he often writes and shares some inspiring stories. And you can also find Gavin on Twitter.


Nils Hamm Interview

Welcome back to our weekly interview series, ‘There’s no Magic without art’.

This week we had the pleasure of talking with artist Nils Hamm, who lives in Germany, and since the set Future Sight has illustrated over 150 Magic cards, including iconic ones like Delver of Secrets, Phantasmal Image and Baleful Strix.

Cosplayer Christine Sprankle and Nils Hamm © Wizards of the Coast

How did you become an artist?

Since Kindergarten i liked to draw, and in my youth I was big into reading comics; later, I had the vague idea of becoming a comic artist, and some years later, when i got in touch with fantasy art, through cover artworks by Frazetta and other fantasy artists, I decided that was what I wanted to do.

I studied graphic design & Illustration, and though I did not learn a lot on a more technical level, I had good teachers who opened my horizon regarding art, composition and such, and I really started appreciating non-fantasy art (which before I just did not respond to much), and that helped me learn about what makes a good drawing a good painting.

In my last year studying, I visited some of my old art idols in the USA, which was a fantastic adventure; one of them was Rick Berry, and his very unorthodox approach to painting was another eye opener, and that still resonates in me until today.

And how did you start working on Magic?

Dawn Murin got me on board for Hecatomb, a horror card game that WOTC did back then (2004 or 2005 I guess). The game eventually stopped, but meanwhile Jeremy Jarvis, MTG Art Director then, had seen my stuff and wanted to work with me as well. I am still super thankful; before that I often heard my style was too strange, “people would not get it” and so on.

Baleful Strix © Wizards of the Coast

What was your first card?

I worked both on Minions Murmur’s and Henchfiend of Ukkor, the set was Future Sight.

What Medium(s) do you work with? Can you give us a brief description of your painting process for Magic?

When working traditionally, I mostly use oils on boards, lately I am experimenting more with different media as well, tints, watercolors, and I like to mix different media too.

When working digitally, I usually paint digitally over traditional abstract surfaces that I scanned in. That way, the scanned surface gives me many parts with shapes and textures that can help to give the digital painting a traditional look, something that I like. The part I enjoy the most is “finding” the image in that chaotic abstract surface in the beginning. Photoshop is fantastic for that, as you can manipulate the whole painting in an instant via layer settings for example.

It’s like switching through color clouds of rough ideas. That can be very exciting and a rather intuitive process, and it is usually my gut that tells me when one direction has potential; it can be certain colors, shapes or a mix of both. If I have to paint a Dragon for example it can be a batch of texture that looks kind of spiky, another looks like a cool snake or a dragon’s neck, and then I go in and try to bring it together somehow.

Briarhorn © Wizards of the Coast

The looser the art direction, the better this approach works. Some images, usually more complex ones with many characters interacting, require more planning though. These days it has become more important that certain specific design elements like architecture, certain clothing, etc, are implemented to clearly show which set the card belongs to.

Do you paint these abstract surfaces purely from instinct?

The abstract surfaces sometimes are created kind of accidentally when I am not happy with a non-finished painting and paint over it. At other times they come out of experiments with different colors and tools; for example, if you apply acrylic colors thinned with water onto a oil color surface, it builds isolated drops or islands of color. Like oil floating on water, only that in this case the water flows on oil. If the acrylic color dries, you get very interesting surfaces.

What makes for an interesting art description?

As described above it suits me best if there are as little restrictions as possible.

For me the best description sounds like: Nils, draw us a witch.

Or: Nils, we need a demon. Give us the most demonlike demon you can come up with.

We are not interested in the background, keep that foggy, no special architecture, just focus on that one single creature.

Elderwood Scion © Wizards of the Coast

Or: paint us a enchanted forest.

Very simple, archetypal images are what inspire me most. I think I could enjoy just painting wizards for the rest of my life.

Oh, I would like even more if the description had the following note: “Be experimental in your style.”

A great card for me was Eyes Everywhere, as Cynthia Sheppard, who was the Art Director, gave me very free hands on it.

What were the most challenging cards to paint and conceptualize?

Bartizan Bats was tricky, as I had the idea to build a big skull into the composition that is not visible at first sight. I did that instead with Rotting Mastodon but in the previous card, the image needed more components, the bats, the Tower, Ravnica architecture, and so on.

Can you share with the process behind Delver of Secrets?

Delver was a very nice card to do; here again I had a lot of freedom in designing the figure and his suit (as well as the laboratory), and I tried to give him a dignified look; he might be doing spooky stuff and experiments, but I do not see him as an evil character (I don’t know if there is any lore behind him in the MTG universe), he is just totally into what he is doing.

And maybe he has delved into his topics too deep….Besides that, I liked telling a little story through the double-sided card. That was even more fun with Ludevic’s Test Subject, another double-sided card I did in that set.

Delver of Secrets © Wizards of the Coast

We saw three new pieces from you on the latest Ravnica Allegiance expansion. I really like the composition for Eyes Everywhere, a card we already touched on.

Eyes Everywhere I enjoyed a lot, also as I did it as a big traditional painting. I used an older, unfinished painting as a base, very much as described above, and painted over that. I had a rough idea and composition but could build many parts of it on the fly.

Since the card was a spell showing a rather surreal scene, I not only could show all different kind of eyes, but also mix different styles. Some of the eyes merely consist of an outer circle done with a crayon and a pupil, while other eyes are painted more naturalistic.

Grave Titan © Wizards of the Coast

Of the work you made for Magic, can you name your favorite cards?

I always liked Chancellor of the Spires; Rosemane Centaur i like, too. Also Gilder Bairn.

One of my all-time favorite cards by other MTG artists is Phantom Tiger by Seb McKinnon, which blew me away the first time someone showed it to me at a tournament.

I am a big fan of his art and the poetic, more abstract qualities he brings into the game. Such a fresh wind!

Gilder Bairn © Wizards of the Coast

Any Magic related story you’d like to share?

A Magic related story that comes to my mind is that I once fell asleep while drawing on a Magic GP. It was on my first day at GP Chibain Japan in 2016. I had arrived the day before and had a strong jetlag; after a couple hours of signing and altering it became really hard to keep my eyes open.

I was just about to start drawing a token card for a player, I faded out for a second and woke up, as my hand had dropped and the pen had left a perfect vertical line on the otherwise blank card. I looked around, but no one seemed to have noticed, so I kept drawing and did build the drawing around that vertical line on the card.


Greg Hildebrandt Interview

For this week’s interview, we talked with legendary artist Greg Hildebrandt. Together with his brother Tim, they painted many iconic illustrations for Stars Wars, Lord of the Rings, Marvel and Magic: The Gathering, among others.

Tim won the 1992 World Fantasy Award for Best Artist, and Greg won the Chesley Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement from the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists. Together, the brothers were awarded the Gold Medal by the Society of Illustrators.

Greg with his famous Star Wars illustration

Your first Magic card came out in 1999. Were you familiar with the game at the time?

No not really. My agent, Jean Scrocco got us the cards as a job. We loved fantasy and so it was a perfect fit.

How did it feel to work on the game, when compared to other Intellectual Properties?
Well we were not really working on the game itself. We got a lot of reference from Wizards of the Coast. We were able to create our own compositions etc. And once in a while we did do a new character design. But it was fun for all of us involved.

You and your brother Tim both painted cards together, how did you organize?

Tim and I did cards together as The Brothers Hildebrandt and individually. We never organized anything. Our agent, Jean, set up our commercial work, gave each of us the descriptions and the reference and we did the art. She always balanced individual cards with Brothers. She knew we wanted to do pieces alone once in a while.

What’s your favorite work you’ve done for Magic?

Can’t say I really have favorites. I always love creating art with action in it so those cards are more fun I think. If I had to pick a favorite I would say Grave Consequences.

In my opinion, your Magic art is notoriously different from your other works in terms of style. Your art has this adaptive, chameleon-like quality. It molds with each universe, instead of imposing its form. Do you agree?

I have always strived as an artist to immerse myself in whatever world I am illustrating. Each world demands a unique style to represent it properly. I like your definition.

What’s are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of illustrating in a fantasy setting?

I would have to say that the challenges are the same in fantasy as anything else that I paint. Coming up with a dynamic composition and lighting setup that I am happy with is paramount to the art. Then as I am painting the final piece giving it 300% of myself every time is essential. I try to get to a point where fantasy meets reality and reality meets fantasy. I hope I have achieved it.

Magic players are very passionate and like to get to know the artists and get their cards signed. Did you experience this aspect, and was it similar with Star Wars and LOTR fans?

Unfortunately, most Magic Fans do not show up at the conventions I am at. We used to get a lot of Magic fans mailing me their cards for signatures. A year ago I turned that over to Scott Mosser. Scott sets up large batches of cards for me to sign for Magic fans. It is much easier this way as I really do not have a lot of extra time. He keeps it all straight. He ships everything back to each fan. Works really really well. Star Wars fans are a breed of their own. They track me down. That is always fun. And Lord of the Rings Fans are fun because they always want to find hidden meaning in my art.

You’ve mentioned that the “People rely on digital art because it is fast. OK so it’s fast and a lot of it is good. Some of it is great. But a lot of it is crap”. Doesn’t this also apply to traditional media?

Well if you are asking me to compare digital media to painting that is not a fair question. I like looking at digital art but I don’t ever get a sense of a soul in the art. I am not trying to be a jerk here. But digital art is slick. Art with soul is not. It is that simple. Digital artists are looking for perfection. There is no perfection in reality. I am a realist. I am OK with flaws. As far as good vs crap, hey everything on the planet is that way. Good art/Bad art. But it is all art. Thank God for that.

What would you name as the defining factors behind such a successful and eclectic career?

I have always been interested in many things, painting, drawing, puppet making, costumes, masks and make up, animation, film making, special effects, photography etc. From a very early age my parents supported and encouraged my art. I was very lucky in my career. I found myself in the right place at the right time quite often. I had many great people around me and many great opportunities.

I also never stayed with one thing. I never wanted to specialize. This way I have fans of all ages in many genres around the world. At almost 80 years old I still paint almost every day. I paint most days at least 8-10 hours. Even now I am constantly trying new things with light and composition. I have tried to stay current with the industries that I work in and I adapt my art for new generations to come.

But the single most defining factor is that in 1979, almost 40 years ago, Jean Scrocco became my agent. Every day for those 40 years she has stood behind me, directed my art and my career. She has given me the never-ending push to be the best I can be at what I do every day. She is as much a part of my art as I am.


Jesper Myrfors Interview - Part II

Magic: The Gathering took the world by storm in 1993, and its popularity spread like a wildfire from Seattle to the world.

And who pulled this incredible feat? A small team of people working from a home garage. One of them was Jesper Myrfors, the original Art Director.

Join us, as we continue our interview with Jesper, and go over his last years at Wizards, some of his most famous cards, and also talk about a more personal side to Jesper’s life.

This interview picks up from where we left last week, so click here if you missed Part I.

Enjoy!

“Magic would have eaten itself if left in the hands it was in. I think Hasbro has saved it in some ways”

– Jesper Myrfors

Jesper Myrfors
Source: casualhornan

What happened after the success of Alpha?

What happened next was we needed a follow up to the game. They decided to do a smaller set so players would not feel overwhelmed. The big thing was no power creep, as we were not trying to sell an upscaling product that would require people to buy it continuously, as Warhammer was doing, They released an edition of the game, then released all the miniatures, then they’d kill it, and then they did it again.

We really didn’t want to do that because we were gamers, we wanted to make products that we’d love, we were the target market. It doesn’t get better than that, when the people making the game are the same people who want to play it, and that’s really what it was. Very much like a band that makes the music they want to hear and then get fans.

And shortly after we get Arabian Nights…

An interesting point about both Ice Age and Arabian Nights: if you look at the packaging for Arabian Nights it will show a purple back, and for Ice Age I had designed a blueish white. That was done deliberately, because at the time we thought you should be able to identify the set the cards came from, sort of tagging what style of magic you were using, something that for tournaments could also be easily removed. But it got countered, and rightfully so, as it could lead to cheating and all kinds of gameplay issues; but if you look at the booster boxes for Arabian Nights you can see a vestigial holdover from that.

Arabian Nights Booster Box

And here’s another tidbit: the Hurloon Minotaur was actually named by me. We had to get a magazine ad out and it was really late, nobody else was in the office, and the copy for the ad absolutely had to be done by morning. So I wrote up the flavor text for the Hurloon Minotaur, and that’s how that whole thing about them with their long low moans came to be.

Antiquities was when we started to develop our own intellectual property, rather than relying on generic fantasy tropes and literature. We did leave enough of a foundation in Alpha, as we had working names for groups and races, so it was more like phasing out the generic. That was the beginning of the actual Magic universe.

At this point in time, was the game attracting a more mainstream audience?

Things were moving very fast that at this point, we had already discussed the reprints and how that was going to work with the white borders. The decision had been made to take out any satanic or demonic references, because we didn’t want to upset the people who got all distressed about Dungeons & Dragons, the same people that would complain to the big retailers like Target and Walmart.

All that imagery was taken out to pave the way to get into those giant retail stores, and that’s when it really started to take off. I wasn’t involved in all those decisions, and I didn’t want to be part of them, because I was busy art directing. But It was around this time that they said they wanted to be mass market, they were tired of just the hobby industry.

What was your last set working as an Art Director?

I don’t remember, it was probably the year 2000, but by then I had I had just completely lost interest in the entire process. I left the art team and became part of R&D to work on games.

At this point Wizards of the Coast was turning into a relatively big company, right?

The passion was for profit, not for the game. I’m not saying that people who worked on Magic didn’t have passion for it, I’m saying at the heart of the company, they didn’t have passion for it.

R&D really cared about the game, I heard arguments in that place over minutia, it almost came to blows. But the suits really stopped caring more and more, and you know, when that happens, things start to go downhill pretty quickly.

I think Hasbro has saved it in some ways. Magic would have eaten itself if left in the hands it was in. If they can keep the greed down to a dull roar they might actually keep it going for a long time.

Do you still go to events?

Occasionally. I enjoy the Magic community in general, they’re very nice and very intelligent, I really enjoy interacting with them. I don’t play Magic anymore, but gaming is my passion, I work at a game company called Greyborn Studios, we make computer games.

I’m going to name some of your Magic cards, and if you could talk a little bit about them that would be cool.

Sure.

Mold Demon. I really like this card!

To explain that card I must first talk about the philosophy behind the art direction I was using. In the very original days of Magic, my feeling was that I was representing a huge world with different kinds of magic. I couldn’t standardize the look of the game, so I wanted the borders to carry the look and the art to be diverse.

My preference was for people to love or hate some of the work rather than being ambivalent about it all, and I was hoping that the game and the borders would tie it all together into some sort of semblance of a diverse world.

And at the time I was experimenting with a bunch of different styles on my own. Remember that at the time I was still in art school, and I had very little painting experience. I was also doing work for other companies, I continued to work for Pagan, White Wolf and Mayfair Games.

So I was trying to diversify my style, and I was starting to appreciate a looser painting style that was more spontaneous and used the chaos of the moment, I thought it looked violent and spontaneous and fungal. So when Mold Demon came up, I thought “Hey, I will try this technique on it!”.

I also like Demonic hordes.

The influence on that one if you’d like to know is Scandinavian fairy tales and aboriginal art.

What about Word of Command?

Oh, god. That’s a card that will haunt me, I really dislike it. I know there are people who like it and I don’t mean to denigrate them, and it’s a fun card to alter because there’s nothing to it. But what happened was I was doing a texture painting, it was in the bag that I carry around and I showed it to Richard. I told him I was thinking of using it for a background, and I had drawn two stupid little eyes on it as a joke, and that’s when he said he really liked it, and had a card for it.

I thought he was kidding, but he insisted it was perfect for it. It was never painted to be a Magic card, and I’m not trying to pass that off as a legitimate painting. I mean, it might be now. One thing I’ve noticed as an artist and as I’ve gotten older is that I don’t see my work the way other people see it. So maybe people see something in it. I don’t.

I must also ask you about the famous Atog.

I didn’t notice it was an anagram for goat when I painted it, and I feel pretty stupid now knowing it.

Many years after this card was published, a player noticed that the Atog was on a boat. You also said that this card had all this hidden narrative around it.

It was so weird that it took that long for somebody to comment on it! I’m sure other people have noticed, I mean, the odds of not having been noticed are astronomical. But you know, when Atog came out people hated the card mechanic, and they also hated the artwork.

I got a lot of mean comments on that one [Laughs]. Now that it has become kind of iconic, I know how Mike Judge feels with his films. Now people tell me it’s their favorite, before they’d tell me how stupid and ugly it was.

And do you have any other “hidden boats” yet to be discovered?

I could point out that I have a picture of myself on the Tropical island card. I’m standing in the center of the island in a long black Western duster with a cowboy hat on; I’m very small, but I’m there.

Do you still follow the game today?

I really don’t. I think the art is too homogenous, too busy for the size. But the art itself is phenomenal, way better than a lot most of the art from when I was playing, and I’m saying it out of honesty, as I’m sure most of the other artists would agree with me.

These are fantastically talented people, but they have a bit too much of the same style. I don’t think any of the current artists are bad, they’re all better than I’ll ever be.

Do you do still work on art direction?

Sometimes I get called to do a directing job and I really enjoy it, but these days I’m mostly doing environmental design on video games. I just finished working on a game, it’s called Luna and the Moonling and it’s available on Steam.

You also mentioned that you have been diagnosed with Autism late in life?

My wife was watching some television show and she said “oh my god, that’s my husband!”. She finally convinced me to go in and get tested at the University of Washington Autism Clinic and sure enough, I’m autistic. My brain thinks differently than other people apparently do, and it leads to a lot of misunderstandings and poor communication. I’ve been working a lot harder on that recently.

It also means I tend to focus more on one thing, which is how I could buckle down and get Magic done so quickly, because I focused on nothing else but Magic for the entire time I worked on it, so I got things done. And now that makes sense. There’s some real downsides to it though, I really need rituals in my life, not in a religious sense, I just need the comfort of knowing what I’m going to be doing at any given time.

When plans change suddenly, that can be a big deal to me, and it’s really jarring. I also have a lot of trouble with sensory overload. The environment at a GP is really stressful for me and I feel like an animal, so the fact that I actually enjoy interacting with people under those circumstances says a lot about Magic players and how cool they are, because those environments really freak me out.

It’s curious how one can discover such an important thing about themselves later in life.

It really is. I would encourage anyone who suspects they are, to go and find out because it is life changing in a good way. It doesn’t mean I’m mentally defective or anything, it merely means that my brain thinks in a in a way that’s alien to people who aren’t autistic.

Thank you for this interview and for giving such personal account of your story.

My father told me one thing when I was very young that stuck with me more than any other lesson. He said that the only thing you really have is your honor, and if you lose it, it is almost impossible to get it back. So I try my best to live honorably and part of that it is being honest with myself as well.


Jesper Myrfors Interview - Part I

What did it feel like to work on the very first Magic set, the one that would go on and change the gaming world forever?

Only a handful of people in the world know it, and Jesper Myrfors is one of them.

Today we’re proud to share a very special interview with Jesper, who not only was the very first Art Director of the game, but also illustrated more than 50 Magic cards, including the original Dual lands.

Since Jesper shared so many incredible stories with us, we decided to split this interview in two parts, and we’ll publish the second part next Wednesday.

Enjoy!

“When they first showed me Magic, and at that moment, I said: please stop paying me, I want all that money in stock, this game’s gonna change the world”

– Jesper Myrfors

Jesper Myrfors

How did you start?

I’ve been interested in fantasy my whole life, both my parents like fantasy and science fiction, so I was brought up around it. I had friends who wanted to be like race car drivers or astronauts, I wanted to be an artist.

What did you study?

I went to an art school called Cornish College of Art. The school was nonstop work, one deadline after another, and it also focused heavily on criticism, which was nice.

Every teacher I had there said that fantasy art wasn’t a career, it didn’t exist, so I promised myself in my junior year that I would have published work in the fantasy art market before I came back as a senior, and that led me to Wizards of the Coast.

And how did you find them?

At the time I really enjoyed a game called Talislanta, which was a fantasy role playing game, and Wizards of the Coast had bought the rights to it. I contacted them with my portfolio, and they said they liked it but the work wasn’t appropriate, so I said “look, how about you give me a chance, and I’ll do a piece. If you don’t like it, we can just part ways”, and they agreed.

So I did two pieces over the weekend and they liked it, and that’s how I got my foot in the door. Then they kept asking me to do more and more stuff, and said that if I wanted to be part of the company to show up to their weekly meetings, and so I did.

“The original plan Wizards had was to use secondary rights art for Magic cards, using famous book covers and famous record albums”

Peter Adkison, the founder of Wizards of the Coast, (front row, third from the left) and Garfield (front row, second from the right) in 1992 with the University of Pennsylvania play-test group that helped design Magic. Source: Seattlemet © Richard Garfield

So you started attending the weekly meetings…

Yes, and they would sneak off to have these special meetings that I wasn’t invited to because I was a newcomer, which felt a little culty…. they run off and I’m left to wonder if I’m being prepared for sacrifice.

They didn’t want to let me know about it because they were discussing Magic, and the game was so groundbreaking they couldn’t let it out of the company. Eventually, they hired me on as art director, because Lisa Stevens [the company’s first full-time employee] wanted to do other things.

When they first showed me Magic, and at that moment, I said: “please stop paying me, I want all that money in stock, because this game’s gonna change the world”.

So when people asked if I knew, I did know.

I think it was Richard who said in an interview that he knew he had something special when the playtesters kept asking to play the game in his absence.

Yeah that’s what it felt like. Well, you know, you played.

But things were different back in 93, there was not much stuff out there, it was still very small.

It was really small. It probably started with H.G. Wells, I think he published the first miniature games, then Dungeons and Dragons really helped push it out beyond where it was, and that was kind of a gold standard for a long time. White Wolf pushed the scene more into the mass market, they had a very adult and literary take on gaming, they did a really good job and the audience blew up.

People started taking gaming at something that’s more than just for high school nerds and kids. Alongside all of this of course was the Warhammer franchise, they were also pushing gaming to the mass market from another front. I think Magic landed right in the middle of that and made a big splash that went beyond the pond, but I don’t think that pond would have been there at all without the foundation laid down by those other companies and creators.

“He quit, sold his stock, then drove the car up to the to the back of the house, pulled up with his stereo blaring, called us all suckers and drove away laughing. I think that stock would been worth 2.5 million dollars”

An Alpha booster

So you were hired as an art director. What happened next?

Well, originally, I was working on the Talislanta books and Primal Order, and those were the projects I started to gather the base of artists that I wanted to work with. Some of the artist I was in school with, because I was working on Magic before I graduated from college.

We never viewed ourselves as the kind of company that was going to stay small, we always envisioned what we were going do when we had more money to spend on stuff, and I had this growing pool of artists that I wanted to use in that kind of a situation, so I started to pull them from these sources originally.

Julie Baroh [one of Magic’s original 25 artists] told me your excitement was contagious.

Do you remember earlier how I said the atmosphere was sort of cult like? I meant that as sort of a joke about how they were excluding me from the meetings, but it more applied to me. I had almost an evangelical fervor about the game, I believed in it that much.

And I’ve heard from other artists that it was my excitement of the project that got them involved because they didn’t really understand what the game was.

I should also say that before Magic I had met Richard Garfield. Richard brought another game to the company called Roborally and I was art directing it, it got put on the shelf because everyone got so excited about Magic.

Was he as excited as you were at the time?

You know, Richard doesn’t really show excitement. He does, but… I would not like to play poker against him. I can tell when he’s happy and I can tell when he’s thinking about something, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him mad or anything.

“With blue cards, that’s actually marble paper on the old borders”

The first Worlds, in GenCon 94 © Wizards of the Coast
Interesting binder…

Did he believe that the game was going to blow up like you did?

He did. I think there was only one person on the project who didn’t think it was going to be huge, and he quit, sold his stock to buy a car stereo if I remember correctly. Then he drove the car up to the to the back of the house that was being rented, the basement we were in as a company, pulled up with his stereo blaring, called us all suckers for not selling our stock and drove away laughing.

I think that stock would been worth 2,5 million dollars.

Did you have to get the art out the door as soon as possible or did you have some time to prepare?

So what happened is Peter Adkison, the CEO, had – I think – double mortgaged his house at that point, and money was almost gone in the company. We were all working for stock at that point because there just was no cash. It was a gamble everyone was taking, he taking it more than anyone else at that point.

Artists you worked with mentioned that you gave them a lot of creative freedom, you would say like “OK this is a red card, blue card, it has this theme, this is the name, go.”

Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. This really hadn’t been done to this scale, and I knew we couldn’t have a uniform look because that would be too much time and too much money, and I also didn’t think it was necessary.

The original plan Wizards had was to use secondary rights art for Magic cards, using famous book covers and record albums. I told them I could get original art that hasn’t been used anywhere else, and it’ll cost less in the short term, and in the long term, it will take these people and their career along with us, so everybody wins, and the company agreed.

I was very loose with the descriptions because I fundamentally trusted their vision on the project. If I didn’t I wouldn’t have hired them.

“We had planned it [Alpha inventory] to last six months, and it sold out in weeks. It evaporated from the warehouse. Gone. We were left there with nothing”

Alpha playtest cards © Wizards of the Coast

In hindsight, would you have done something different?

The only thing I would have done different is something that would have been impossible to do. There are certain artists I wish I had hired, but I didn’t know about them. That doesn’t mean I wish I hadn’t hired some of the original artists, maybe I could have given up some of my own pieces and a few of these other artists could have been included, that’s what I would like to have changed.

How satisfied were you with the overall product when Alpha came out?

Eighty five percent satisfied with it. And since then, it’s probably gone down to fifty five percent satisfied with it. That’s probably where it is.

What’s the reason behind the change?

Because looking at it I can see all the things that I could have done differently, that I think aesthetically would have looked better, and the longer it’s been around the longer I’ve been looking at it and the more that hits me. There’s certain things I really like about it, like the card back (but I don’t like the deckmaster on it), I’m still proud of it, but there are certain things in the borders that I don’t like. I really don’t like the legends border, that gold, that’s one I wish I could have redone.

Also, Magic was the first project that I ever used Photoshop on, it was kind of a sink or swim thing. I thought I could do it, they believe I could do it, but anything could have happened. That’s one reason why so many actual physical elements were used on Magic cards; like the blue cards, that’s actually marble paper on the old borders, and the back of the card was mostly hand painted.

“After a while it got to be kind of strange because I’m starting to just show up and people are treating me like I’m famous”

The Power Nine

So the game comes out. How long did it take for the prophecy to come true, and the game to blow up?

It was laughably fast. We had planned it to last six months, and it sold out in weeks. It evaporated from the warehouse. Gone. We were left there with nothing.

As I said, we were in a dire financial state, and the printing costs for full color cards on the quality of paper we wanted was pretty high. We were not going to release a product that you play a couple of times and the cards fall apart, because every single person in the company was a gamer, and we didn’t want to release a game that we were embarrassed of, especially not a game this good.

So we searched through all kinds of cards stock to find the one that would be the most flexible, the one that wouldn’t tear at the edges. We went through a lot of personalized testing on different cards, and everything became about the quality of it, and that caused it to be pretty expensive. It’s also why the original magic packs have a very simple printing scheme on the boosters, it was a cheaper and we wanted all the money we had to go into the actual game, the part the players handled, so the packaging wasn’t that important.

The CEO scrounged enough money together, he went on like a roadshow to raise money. I believe he traveled around the country to friends, sort of showing people the game, and I had mocked up cards so people could see what the real cards would look like on color print outs. He managed to raise enough money to do a small print run, which was a fraction of what we wanted to print. This is how you get Alpha and Beta.

The first Worlds, in GenCon 94 © Wizards of the Coast

Alpha was printed with that little bit of investment money and the mortgaging of his house. And as soon as we got money from Alpha we threw it into Beta, and that’s why Beta is a slightly bigger run. It also wasn’t just the sales of Alpha, when Alpha started to sell we got more investment because people could see that we actually had something worthwhile here. So we managed to raise enough money quickly to get Beta out.

What kind of feedback were you getting from the players?

This was early early Internet days, websites were barely a thing, there was no social media, so we mostly got emails or fan mail and sometimes phone calls. We would go to game stores to promote it, and after a while it got to be kind of strange because people are treating me like I’m famous.

I showed up at the Virgin store in London and one guy was so nervous to meet me he was shaking, and to me that is still such a bizarre experience. I don’t see myself as different than that person. I found unsettling. That’s when I knew this game was becoming really big.

How big were you as a team at this point?

Approximately ten or eleven, maybe twelve.

And still out there at the garage?

Yes. I don’t think we left the garage until… [thinks] Legends. Or just prior Legends.


Margaret Organ-Kean Interview

Welcome back to our weekly artist interview, today we have the pleasure of sharing our talk with Margaret Organ-Kean, who’s distinct style appears on 27 Magic cards, including the iconic Lion’s Eye Diamond.

Here’s what Margaret told us.

How did you become an artist?

That’s an interesting question. From my point of view, it’s a bit like asking how did you become a female? It’s just something I am; part of my identity, like my height or my eye color or my weight.

However, if you’re wondering about my training, I started drawing and painting in my mid-teens and by my late teens I was trying, sometimes successfully to sell my work. I went to college at Boston University’s School for the Arts for two years taking drawing, painting (oils), sculpture and design.

I then went to the University of Washington where I majored in Art History, with an emphasis on the Italian Renaissance, Greek and Roman art, and Chinese art. I studied Art History for two years as a graduate student also at the University of Washington.

Oddly, except for high school, I don’t believe I’ve ever taken a class in watercolor.

And how did you start working on Magic?

My fiancé and I were at the 1993 Worldcon in San Francisco where I was organizing a series of art workshops. where we saw that Wizards of the Coast had a new product out, Magic. I looked at all the colorful cards and thought that that was just what I needed to be doing.

Remember, in the early 90s color reproductions were expensive and getting good ones could be difficult. I didn’t care what they paid and I almost (not quite) didn’t care if they paid as long as I got my hands on lots of those little cards to send as samples to people I was interested in working for (remember this was pre-internet; I mailed all my portfolios).

So, when I got home one of the first things I did was mail in a portfolio and I heard back with an assignment about 3 months later.

What was your first card?

My first set was Antiquities and I was assigned three cards, Ivory TowerMartyrs of Korlis (originally titled Monks of Korlis) and Amulet of Kroog. I usually work on more than one piece at a time so it’s a little hard to say exactly which one was first. But as I recall, I think I started and finished Ivory Tower first.

What Medium(s) do you work with? Can you give us a brief description of your painting process for Magic?

Currently I’m using Daniel Smith watercolors. At the time I started working with WotC, I think I was still using Winsor Newton watercolors.

For Magic and most of my work, I sketch the work carefully in pencil and send it in for approval. Once it’s approved, I work over the original pencil in watercolor.

That’s the usual; I remember a couple of time I reworked the piece as I was not satisfied with the original watercolor.

I’m also starting to work in pencil to a final completed piece and I’m enjoying that immensely.

What were the most challenging cards to paint and conceptualize?

Hm. I would say Heart Wolf. And that’s all I’m going to say about that card. The other was Lion’s Eye Diamond – I tell that story below. When the dam broke on that one – WOW!

Your Magic cards have these geometric elements that contrast with realistic motifs. Where do they come from?

They come from a lot of places; the quilts my mother sews, patterns in Asian art, especially Persian and Mughal miniatures and Japanese Ukiyo-e, and medieval miniatures.

European art since the Renaissance has viewed a painting as looking through a window at a naturalistic scene. I have some problems with that; paper is flat and I think that should be respected.

The pattern work is one way of doing that. Another is adding gilding and/or metallic, iridescent or dichroic pigments. These last don’t reproduce well so I haven’t used them as much as I would like.

Lion’s Eye Diamond is one of your most iconic cards, do you recall how it came to be?

Yes, that was a weird one. I had four cards from Mirage and the first three were very easy to conceptualize, draw, and finish. However I couldn’t for the life of me ‘see’ Lion’s Eye Diamond.

Then one evening I was sketching, trying to get something going, and about 8:00 pm I started the sketch that became Lion’s Eye Diamond. It was an amazing experience.

The drawing just kept getting better and better and when I had the pencil down, well I’m supposed to send the sketch in for approval. But I just couldn’t quit – it was like working in a dream. I just kept going until it was finished and it wasn’t until then that I noticed it was 8:00 am.

I was completely addicted to that painting. I don’t often have a piece hit the paper like that one did.

Did you get to keep any of the original paintings and sketches?

I wanted to. I very much wanted to keep Implements of Sacrifice and Hipparion. Unfortunately, my husband and I both had cancer in the last decade and I had to sell all of my Magic originals to pay medical bills. (For those wondering, my husband unfortunately died, but I will hit my fifth year anniversary next spring so I’m unlikely to have it come back.)

Of the work you made for Magic, what are you favorites?

Implements of Sacrifice, Hipparion, Autumn Willow, and Mana Prism. I like Lion’s Eye Diamond a great deal, but I think I did a better job on Mana Prism. Your opinion may vary. Of those four, I think I did the best job on Hipparion.

Implements of Sacrifice is a self-portrait, with a kitchen knife and a sherbet bowl. Someone said that there were no fat women in fantasy art and I decided to put one in. Another thing that most people don’t notice is that the woman is wearing an Amulet of Kroog.

When Fallen Empires came out, someone online said, “I hate that piece.” So I asked why and he replied, “Because he’s wearing nail polish and men don’t wear nail polish”. I replied that it wasn’t a man, it was a woman, and he said no, it was a man.

So I said that it was a woman and I should know because I painted the piece and it was a self-portrait! He didn’t recognize me as the artist because this was back in the days of Compuserve and I was using my Compuserve ID, 76506.1633 on usenet.

Autumn Willow was another portrait, this one of Kaja Foglio [also a Magic artist]. My husband and I went over in the evening to take the photos. Kaja is wearing a necklace I owned at the time, later lost in a burglary. I’ve always thought this was one of my best portraits.

Hipparion is one of the cards I actually researched. It turns out it’s an actual prehistoric collateral relative of the horse. I decided to paint the moment of summoning, and have them summoned into winter from summer, which explains the changes in their coats. I figured they might be like some of the arctic animals who change colors with the seasons.

Mana Prism was meant to me a counterpart to Lion’s Eye Diamond; evidently I succeeded as many people tell me they catch a glimpse of a Mana Prism and think it’s a Lion’s Eye Diamond.

Where can our readers find more about your work?

I’m active on Facebook; you can follow my personal page (cats, cats, and more cats) or if you want to see my work sign up for my professional page where you can get the pretty pictures, auction notices, and appearance listings here.

I’m also on Twitter, Instagram, Instagram with artist proofs, and Patreon