About a year ago, there was a huge leak for the upcoming set Dominaria. Every card was leaked. All the text for every card was ready to be consumed on the internet. It's always a bit unfortunate when this happens, since it somewhat ruins the joy of being able to see the set as it was intended. But there was something interesting about this leak: None of the art came along with the cards. For weeks, you could browse sites that had the spoilers for upcoming sets, and you'd only see card frames with text in them telling you what the card was, and what it did. And people couldn't process it. It was a very weird phenomena. The playerbase was looking at an entirely new, powerful set, and yet they couldn't quite grasp which cards were good and which ones weren't. It was almost as if the cards had little meaning to them without the art.
Think back to your first time looking at Magic. Maybe you were at your friend's house and he had some cards laying around that you started thumbing through. Maybe there was a girl on a playground in elementary school that you saw, placing lands onto the blacktop. Whatever it was, whenever it was, I bet that you saw those cards and thought "those look pretty cool". It doesn't matter when that was. If you were playing in the 90s, maybe you had heard about the pagan imagery that was turning kids into devil worshippers, and you immediately recognized it from seeing a Demonic Tutor from across the table. Maybe you went to your first Friday Night Magic just a few months ago and opened a foil Pause for Reflection, and just thought it looked cool.
Pause for reflection, I think that's fitting. I play Magic a lot. I see the cards every day. I look at them in my opening hands, I can recognize them from across a large table. I don't even have to read them usually, I can just glance at them and know what's happening. But every now and then, I think it's worthwhile to take some time to look at and enjoy the pieces of this very complex puzzle of a game. I'd like to spend some time and take a look at some pieces.
Credit: Mark Zug and Wizards of The Coast
The very first card I remember seeing was the 7th Edition , who's art you see picture above. I was eight at the time, and even I could understand what was going on. The card said Serra Angel, and the depiction was straight forward and obvious. The figure shown is that angel. She has wings, but her pose seems effortless, like she's floating among the clouds that fall beneath her.
A corona of light emanates from her head, suggesting that she's emitting a bright light on the battlefield. She sports armor, riveted and ornate, suggesting that she is stalwart, resolute. She brandishes a sword and sheath, showing her strength, while the wisps of a gilded banner fall behind her, exhibiting grace. In today's day and age, there are things that we can say to point out why art like this might not be the best to be promoted. Her armor is objectifying to say the least. But in another time, where my young self saw my brother sliding that piece of cardboard across a table in my living room, it brings nostalgia, and appreciation for simple pieces like this.
The Delta Over Time
I'd like to look at some art from cards that I began to appreciate more recently. As I've gotten into the competitive side of Magic, there's certain cards that you'll see again and again. One of these sets is the fetch lands. One of my favorite's from a visual and flavor perspective has been . Originally printed in Onslaught, it's first edition's art was done by none other than Rob Alexander. The artist who created the art for some of the original dual lands seemed like a perfect fit for the land cycle that goes best with them.
Credit: Rob Alexander and Wizards of the Coast
This rendition certainly evokes the word "polluted". It's dreary, melancholy palette reminds the viewer of seeping oil, maybe wreckage of a ship. We don't know much of the scene itself, but we know this: the land their is tainted. Maybe even cursed? The fact that this art goes to a land that is meant to fetch swamps and islands is apparent. It is amorphous and elusive. It is both black and blue. I believe that it is this art, as well as the old frame that hosted the original fetch lands, that causes players to seek out this older printing to add into their Grixis and Sultai decks across formats. It's haunting, quiet message is clear, even if it's waters are not.
Twelve years after the original artwork was released, Khans of Tarkir hit shelves of gaming stores, with boxes of allied fetch lands as its chase cards. Polluted Delta made a return, this time with art updated to show the landscape of Tarkir, and the ferocious dragons that once inhabited the plane.
Credit: Vincent Proce and Wizards of the Coast
Here we have a new interpretation of that word, polluted. We still have the muck and mud of the previous edition of the Delta, but this time it sports the decaying skeletons of the dragons that once soared Tarkir's skies. Rather than a gloomy, misty atmosphere, we have one that is more chaotic, violent even. It shows the outcome of pollution on once living things, how even great winged beasts can become wrought with taint once soaked in murky waters. Whereas the previous iteration of the Delta show misty, obscured and rather flat imagery, here we see detailed bones and depth to the mountains of the plane in the background. We have a similar color palette, that of blacks and whites with touches of brown. However the washed out, almost faded look that the Rob Alexander lands are known for is replaced with Vincent Proce's attention to detail. Each bone can be zoomed in on and studied, revealing moss and algae. Curious mist and fog is replace with billowing plumes of assuredly toxic swamp gas, perhaps showing what caused the dragons to fall in the first place. It is haunting with despair, rather than eeriness.
Credit: Veronique Meignaud and Wizards of the Coast
Lastly, we Veronique Meignaud’s rendition, printed as a Zendikar Expedition. Rather than approach the term "polluted" from a black and white perspective, by showing that which is bad in a dark light, she instead wanted to show the toxic with a rainbow of chromatic and almost ethereal colors. If the ghostly white trees and barren landscape are to be believed, this body of water is no less evil than her predecessor's. The beautiful array of colors that flows from the far mountain reminds the viewer of gasoline, rather than oil. Deadly to those that touch is, but can be nice to look at. Her ability to capture a wide breadth of color fits with the wild and exotic theme that the plane of Zendikar has, as well as the plane's archenemy, the Eldrazi. This must be which she was tasked with creating ten lands in total for the plane of Zendikar, including the often sought after full art basic lands of the original Zendikar and Battle for Zendikar.
This was a lot of fun for me to write, going through and look at art of the game we all love with a bit of a different eye. I just wanted to give those who would read this a moment to think about those cards we all play so much, to give a bit of thought into how beautiful some of that art can be. And maybe someday, some of you will think the same way about the cards you first saw that made you fall in love with the game, and how you feel about their art.