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The Molten Mind Space

How Playing ‘Magic: The Gathering’ has Improved my Art Practice

Apart from the fact that playing Magic: The Gathering is a great excuse for procrastinating, and not making art, here are a few things that I feel have improved in my art practice as a result of coming to grips with this seminal card game, which attracts over twenty million players world-wide. Art by Wesley Burt

1. Visual storytelling

To be fair, I have always enjoyed comic art, and painted comics especially. But it wasn’t until I started playing Magic: The Gathering (MTG), where each card is a fully painted artwork capturing a whole story in one image, that I fully appreciated the true art of visual storytelling.

The richness of the imagery is stunning. MTG artwork is not your average fantasy art. Since starting to play MTG, my own visual storytelling skills have improved greatly. But I still have a long way to go.

2. Design and Composition

The layout of the cards is so simple, and yet so elegant. This is not really something you think about much when playing, but to make all the weird and wonderfully diverse elements of the game fit together, with one uniform look, must have been very difficult. This was not something which was attempted by the designers in the first few sets, but which quickly evolved.

“Much of Magic's early artwork was commissioned with little specific direction or concern for visual cohesion. One infamous example was the printing of the creature Whippoorwill without the "flying" ability even though its art showed a bird in flight. The art direction team later decided to impose a few constraints so that the artistic vision more closely aligned with the design and development of the cards. Each block of cards now has its own style guide with sketches and descriptions of the various races and places featured in the setting.” (Wikipedia)

And yet, there are only minor layout variations to the cards, throughout the full 26 years of its existence. These include the relatively recent introduction of special ‘planeswalker’ cards, which, despite containing completely different gameplay information, manage to gel with the look of the rest of the cards quite seamlessly.

‘In-story’ design elements such as the hovering rock formations in the Zendikar expansion, and characters wearing stained glass armour in the Dominaria set, are another way of unifying the look of cards in a particular set. These are nice touches, which, unless you examine the artwork of each card, are sometimes not obvious.

Composition in the art is also more noticeable, due to the fact that each picture must fit the tight restraints of the tiny frame in the card. This makes for highly dramatic framing and layouts to some images, which has impacted on my own compositions.

3. Inspiration

As previously mentioned, there is some seriously wacky stuff in the Magic universe (or rather Multiverse, since the premise for the game is that each new set of cards explores a different dimension, or plane in a greater Multiverse, which only ‘Planeswalkers’ can traverse).

Because of the rampant nature of the magic which is being wielded by these and other characters and creatures, objects and people can shapeshift, cats grow wings, dragons turn into frogs, and statues come alive. In fact, any combination of the above.

The mix-and-match nature of the gameplay, also means that anything goes, when it comes to what creatures can do, depending which cards are played together. Goblins might fly, unicorns drive dreadnaught vehicles, dragons wield lances…

This mind broadening, all-purpose set-up has helped me to experiment more with ideas and to push boundaries when it comes to fantasy art. Why wouldn’t dragons who are male and female wear trousers and a skirt? As in this image:

4. Elemental mana

The use of land cards to provide a source of magical energy (mana) is also a very elegant gameplay idea. And the land cards themselves are the most beautifully designed cards in the game. They also have some seriously amazing artwork, especially the rarer ‘full-art’ lands.

Since I am largely a landscape artist, these were the very first thing that spoke to me about Magic: The Gathering. They were my first source of inspiration I took from the game, mostly unconsciously.