I started playing and became enthralled by Magic: The Gathering almost exactly twenty years ago, in the Summer of 1994. In the two decades since then I’ve played the game sporadically, and I’ve watched as it underwent drastic aesthetic and mechanical changes, in the course of doing so becoming one of the most successful game franchises in the world. Today, the game has profits somewhere close to $250 million per year. It’s surprising how successful Magic is considering how long it’s been around, and a large part of its success undoubtedly lies in the fact that it’s an incredibly well-designed game. Many people think it’s the greatest non-video game ever made.
However, one of the main reasons Magic became a success to begin with, probably the main reason outside of Richard Garfield’s game design, was the strange and memorable art on the cards. And ironically, the history of Magic serves as an excellent example of the many different ways in which capital-A Art and financial enterprise do not mix. Even more than that, the development of the game over the past two decades mirrors broader changes that have occurred in the world at large over the same period, changes wrought by increasing reliance on digital technology to structure everything in our lives and an increasing lockdown of the individual in which avenues of choice become narrower and profit-minded bureacratic systems become more and more powerful. Constant calculation and rigid control have come to the forefront of human experience more than at any other time in history, and we are overloaded with excess information. In contrast to all of this, I think the art and the style of game design from the first few years of Magic: The Gathering are evidence of a less neurotic and more relaxed mode of existence, a mode of thinking and creating which is strikingly imaginative and powerful because of its acceptance of–and even reliance upon–the unconscious and the unknown.
That guy in the black shirt is Drew Tucker, one of the original Magic artists. You don’t really need to watch the video, but the reason I include it here is that it was the spark that caused me to write an article about all this. Tucker is a real character, an artist’s artist, a man who serves the cultural role of bringing us closer to something like a dream state or a drug experience. If his work doesn’t tell us something about our own unconscious minds, it certainly tells us something about his, and I love the way he earnestly talks about his creative process. “There’s moments in here where I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says, describing a painting, “and so I went like, okay, here’s an aggressive stroke…Often it’s for the motion, or for that feeling. This whole painting is a feeling.”
Rather than fitting the mold we would expect for a fantasy illustrator who makes art for a card game, Tucker is a painter in the vein of Monet or Picasso. His work is rather abstract, and his passionate description of himself creating it immediately reminded me of Brian Topp, the tortured artist caricature from Spaced.
“Anger, pain, fear, aggression…” Indeed. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tucker’s creative process actually looked something like this, albiet less silly. And the interesting thing is that in the early years of Magic, this kind of artist was not an exception to the rule. Here’s a card Tucker did for Alpha, Magic’s first set, in 1993:
When I started playing Magic in ’94, my friends and I often made fun of Drew Tucker’s art, because when you’re a nerdy teenage boy you want to see dragons and angels with breasts, not vague and abstract watercolor pieces. But I did always like Clockwork Beast. There’s a kind of razored intensity to the edges of it, and the way it’s leaning forward lends a frightening amount of weight to the composition. This is a thing you would not want to be caught underneath. Its face, something like a lizard or a dog, is a jumble of angles that seems nearly impossible to look at directly. This has an unsettling effect on the subconscious mind; the indistinct nature of the art helps to fire the imagination, and in this case my own came up with the creaking, rattling sounds it would make as it lurched forward after being wound up. The rich rust-colored background brings even further life to the piece, and feels suggestive of a place of origin: this thing is made of junk from a scrap heap, but when its gears are wound up it becomes kind of alive in a really creepy way. Clockwork Beast is prime Drew Tucker art. It shows his talent for evoking nightmarish feelings through suggestion, and it reminds me strongly of the work Masahiro Ito did for the Silent Hill games, especially his infamous “Red Pyramid Thing.”
Tucker would be tapped repeatedly to illustrate horror-themed cards throughout the first few years of Magic, and he contributed many pieces to the The Dark, one of Magic’s first expansion sets that had an atmosphere befitting its name. Interestingly, The Dark was influenced heavily by the art team during its design process, and one gets the sense that development was more focused on flavor and aesthetics than on mechanical utility. Because of this, the set ended up being unpopular with players (including me) due to its relative lack of powerful and valuable cards. But its sense of flavor is powerful, and it seems remarkable when compared to the kinds of cards that are made now. A horror-themed set called Innistrad was released in 2012, and in comparison to The Dark it feels like a cartoon. Innistrad full of vampires and werewolves and things that go bump in the night, but its setting has no spiritual or psychological weight. It just feels like a mundane “dark fantasy,” with all the typical tropes one would expect to find. There is no surprise, and little sense of the frightening unknown. Most importantly, everything is controlled top-down by a rigid bureaucratic style guide that leaves no room for individual imagination, and that kills off the fear factor immediately. People are afraid of things they don’t understand, not things they’ve seen a million times. The Dark, in comparison, was actually pretty unsettling. It contained a lot of things that made me squeamish as a 14-year-old and still do even now, and it’s a good example of how original Magic was a game created by and for adults.
What the hell is a “Season of the Witch”? What does that mean? It is vague, undefinable, and creepy. It is something close to a vibe or a feeling, and the fact that it’s a “season” and that the art is a depiction of a natural landscape is very emblematic of the vibe of The Dark, and of early Magic cards in general. And then, of course, there is the witchcraft element. During the mid-1990s America was still subject to the kind of hysteria that had surrounded Dungeons and Dragons in the 80s, with parents concerned about their children engaging in clandestine devil-worship through tabletop gaming, and early Magic, in retrospect, is actually not so far off from those paranoid fantasies. It’s not that anyone I knew was trying to use the game to engage in actual occult activities, but rather that the feeling associated with cards like this was pretty spiritual and raw because they were so effective at stoking the imagination. When you’re a kid, you still have some belief in the supernatural, and cards like this seemed genuinely profane to me. Season of the Witch is not especially powerful and I don’t think I ever played it in a deck, but I remember that its existence creeped me out in a good way. It seemed like it was probably based on something real, like some forgotten pagan tradition from the time before Halloween. It made me think of days growing shorter in the Fall, and nights growing longer. In my mind, at least, this card had a powerful connection to both human spiritual traditions and to the cycles of the natural world. It was a magic card, literally.
As for what it functionally does, it’s a black enchantment (a kind of permanent spell) that drives all creatures in the game into a frenzy, forcing them to either to constantly attack or to die, and every turn you must pay some of your precious lifeforce to keep it in play. Note that the spell costs three black mana to cast, which is a very heavy color commitment. This card is all about flavor, about evoking a feeling of what “black magic” means in the game, and color-saturated cards like this were pretty common in The Dark. The art is notably by Jesper Myrfors, the original art director for Magic and one of the main card designers for the set. Because the card and the art were most likely both designed by Myrfors himself, Season of the Witch is a perfect example of what it meant that The Dark was a set created by artists. My youthful impression that the card represented something meaningful and real–that it contained some kind of actual magic–was inexorably tied to the artistic vision that Myrfors had, and the fact that he left the fine details of what it meant up to my imagination and therefore allowed me to create along with him. In this way, early Magic was much like a tabeltop roleplaying game, which is no surprise since that was the culture it emerged from. As the decades have passed, Magic has become much more like a video game, with ironclad rules, firmly established worlds with little-to-no room for player storytelling, and a general lack of abstract or mysterious cards that fuel the imagination. But I’ll talk more about that later.
Here’s another Drew Tucker card, also from The Dark, and another one that I enjoyed even as a kid because of its flavor. It’s a great example of how Tucker’s style is ideal for presenting something mysterious and forcing the viewer to imagine. In the foreground, we see a man crossing a fallen tree, perhaps over a stream, and when we follow his view we see that he has spotted two vaguely-defined figures to the left, one of them tinted the ochre of fallen leaves, its head cocked oddly to the side, and the other more shadowed, half-hidden behind a rock. The foreground figure, onto whom we project ourselves, seems to have frozen in his tracks upon spotting the People of the Woods, startled and uncertain of what to do next.
The flavor text on the card is perfect, as it tells us nothing about the People other than that they have bows and arrows and that they are so reclusive that they don’t even bother to loot the bodies of those they have killed, choosing instead to melt back into the shadows of the forest. This is the essence of how green magic is represented in The Dark. In orginal Magic overall, green represented forests, druids, elves, animal and plant life, and the indomitable spirit of nature. But in The Dark, most of the green creatures and spells were similar in tone to People of the Woods, evoking the way in which unexplored nature hides countless secrets and holds dangerous threats for an unprepared traveler. Green magic in The Dark teases out the way in which the natural world is fundamentally something we don’t understand, something we can’t comprehend in its entirety. There is a cast of mysterious lurking creatures, forest hags, leeches, venomous snakes, carnivorous plants and camouflaged woodland bandits, the kinds of things that might be dwelling in the back of your mind as you set off alone on a journey into a twilit thicket. And most of them, like People of the Woods, are not explained. It’s left up to the player to imagine the origins and actions of these things, and the story of what they are is told through the interaction of their cards in the game.
Past its art and its flavor text, People of the Woods is also an elegantly designed and well-balanced card, and its mechanical functionality is an ingenious representation of its flavor: the more forests a player controls, the more toughness People of the Woods will have. If a player controls a vast domain of woodlands where the People have free reign, they will be incredibly elusive and therefore impossible to kill for even the most powerful of opposing creatures. The more forests the People have to dwell in, the more mysterious they become. And that is a brilliant design decision: the “toughness” stat on this card, rather than representing a large body or heavy armor as it usually does, represents mystery. One can imagine the legend of the People spreading through the forested lands, and populations growing more and more wary to venture into the woods. This is what The Dark was about: your own personal game of Magic representing certain ideas, horror-themed ideas that fuel the imagination specifically because the human mind is so good at visualizing dangers.
Cave People is yet another Drew Tucker card, and you can see that they were doing the same thing here with red magic that they did with green in People of the Woods. The card’s functionality perfectly mirrors its aesthetic concept, and mystery is at the forefront of the presentation. Who are Cave People? We don’t really know. They are elusive, and like People of the Woods their toughness comes from their reclusiveness. I don’t think this card’s art is quite as good as the art on People of the Woods, nor is it as mechanically strong, but as a combination of mechanics and flavor it’s a winner. Cave People, like a couple other cards I will discuss below, also rewards a player for committing heavily to a single color, and even gives the player advantages over others playing the same color (in this case, the mountainwalk ability). This has the effect of making the game feel more flavorful in the same fundamental way that putting more red kool-aid in glass of water increases the taste. The Dark encouraged players to explore the aesthetics of the different colors of Magic by making it lucrative to invest more fully in them.
Elves of Deep Shadow is one of the most iconic cards in all of Magic. Obviously painted with a real model (apparently a girl named Amber who lives in Seattle and has a band called Varnish, how 90s is that?), it has a naturalistic, human-hearted charm to it that you simply won’t find in any modern Magic card. Depictions of real people like this were pretty common in Magic’s early days, but the straightforward charisma of EoDS is particularly memorable. It’s simple and direct, and like other cards in The Dark it’s powerful because it’s evocative of something real: in this case, the 1990s goth scene. In the 90s, Magic culture and tabletop gaming culture in general were strongly linked to counterculture movements and music, especially goth stuff. The card store I frequented in 1994 was full of people who listened to The Cure and dressed at least a little bit gothic, and many of them also played White Wolf’s “Vampire: The Masquerade,” a game that fascinated and kind of frightened me at the time. Even more to the point, The Dark was released in August of ’94, the same month that Wizards of the Coast released Jyhad, a collectible card game based on “Vampire.” Many of the artists who worked on Jyhad had been simultaneously working on The Dark. It wasn’t a coincidence that these two gothic horror card sets were released at the same time, and it’s fun to imagine how a team of artists and designers came up with the cards in The Dark while the artists were simultaneously dreaming up morbid depictions of vampires and the World of Darkness that surrounded them. It’s a lot like if a band was doing a concept album and some of the members had a similar side project going on. This is how art is made, by people who are inspired with ideas and create things in the moment based on feelings and aesthetics, who create things primarily for themselves, because they are excited by them. Art like this has staying power.
As a card, Elves of Deep Shadow is an elegant, flavorful subversion of an original Magic card, Alpha’s Llanowar Elves, a 1/1 green creature for one green mana that could tap to provide one green mana. EoDS is Llanowar Elves corrupted, a green archetype gone goth. It’s a creature that refuses to do what’s expected of it, and pays the price of social exclusion for expressing its individuality (see the flavor text). All of this is is expressed mechanically through the fact that it provides black mana, and through the loss of life when using its ability. It’s a simple concept: being different is painful. If this card had a theme song, it would be “Every Day is Halloween” by Ministry. This is the raw idea of “being goth” condensed into a discrete functional element of a game environment, and it’s one of the best examples of how early Magic cards could brilliantly serve the dual purpose of allowing players to play with ideas while simultaneously playing a fun and well-balanced card game. This was truly admirable game design.
It’s worth noting here as well that White Wolf’s gothic “World of Darkness” games–including Vampire–were also genuinely subversive, but not in the literal devil-worshipping way that conservative Christians must have imagined at the time. While Vampire: The Masquerade was a game in which players could literally imagine themselves as vampires, its real power was as a creative space in which people could tell meaningful stories about themselves and about the world as they saw it (World of Darkness games even referred to the person running them as the “Storyteller,” rather than using a term like “Game Master”). By telling such stories, people could forge new identities, and could create new narratives about the world that had nothing to do with the concepts of value imposed on them by mainstream American culture, with all of its corporate and literalist-religious influences. Vampire and its sister games provided an avenue through which people could create value in their lives, and that, combined with the games’ obvious attachments to the artistic and musical subcultures that shared their ideals, was the secret of their success. While it’s a formidable work of art on its own, Elves of Deep Shadow is also an example of how this kind of cross-pollinated gaming and art culture spilled over into Magic. It’s a nexus point of real world meaning and playful, fantastical creation, and because of that it’s a shining example of what art in general can be, inside or outside of a game.
Less gothic but still exemplifying The Dark‘s green magic theme of sylvan mystery, Scarwood Hag and Hidden Path both reward players who commit heavily to green by giving them thematic and mechanical control of the woodlands. It’s easy to see how the team that came up with People of the Woods was the same one that came up with these cards, all of which care very much about the land in play and want you to play many forests. It’s clear that the designers wanted players to really feel like they were mastering this school of magic with these cards; not only did dedicating most or all of your landbase to forests give you powerful green spells, it gave you an edge over other green players who were still flirting with other colors. Scarwood Hag especially does this, with its ability to deprive your opponents’ creatures of forestwalk (which is great if you’re using Hidden Path). It’s the same dynamic they were exploring with Cave People.
Note once again the completely mysterious nature of both of these cards. Who is the hag, and how does she get her powers? She seems to be a witch that has melded herself into the land, and the art depicts this wonderfully with her head rising out of a woodland pool, a fallen leaf nestled in her hair, her flesh nearly the same tone as the branch just behind her. The rest is up to our imaginations. The source of the magic in Hidden Path is an enigma as well, and the flavor text describing “strange, floating lights” adds the perfect ambiance to the card. One can’t help but think of animistic religious beliefs, or of old European faerie myths. The mystery of the natural world is alive here, and as I said before, one can see how Christian groups would have been very bothered by these cards at the time. In fact, militant atheists would be pretty bothered by them too. These cards, while not being tools for use in literal magical ceremonies, are magic in the sense that they invoke the unknown as a canvas for us to illustrate as we choose. They don’t encourage actual superstition as much as they invite us to remember the significance that has been seen in the natural world throughout history. They remind us that there’s something here that we don’t understand, and that something is the thing invites us to tell a story. This powerful, active sense of being personally engaged with the “magic”–an effect resulting from the interweaving of imaginative, suggestive abstract art and flavorful card mechanics–was the formula which led to the huge breakout success of early Magic: The Gathering.
In contrast, here is Lost in the Woods, a card from Innistrad block that has a classically flavorful mechanical design that would’ve fit into The Dark perfectly. But look at what a missed opportunity the art is. It’s an incredibly literalist, overly-detailed depiction of some guys who are lost in the woods. All we can see of the woods they’re lost in is a smattering of trunks and branches above their heads, and the focus is inexplicably placed on the men themselves, who are completely uninteresting. Why are we staring at the bottom of some dude’s neck? Is that perspective supposed to be scary? Why is the other guy looking at us with some kind of smug expression? And really, who gives a damn about the details of their armor? This art is technically proficient and not unimpressive in terms of lighting and shading, but it gives us nothing to imagine, and in fact shuts down our imaginative process right as it begins. There’s the guys who are lost in the woods. Yep. Move on. This is what most modern Magic art is like, unfortunately. Note also the inorganic and overly-designed modern green card frame, which adds basically nothing to the presentation and distracts us from the art. They reinvented the wheel with this, as one of the other main reasons for Magic’s early success was the simplicity of its overall visual design. The cards were very easy to read, especially compared to most other collectible card games, and their outer frames consisted of naturalistic paintings which effortlessly invoked their color archetypes. Most importantly, the frames looked real, providing the illusion that the cards were printed on some kind of magical parchment. In comparison, the frame on Lost in the Woods looks like something that was designed on a computer.
Close your eyes and imagine this card with the original green frame. Imagine its art zoomed out incredibly far, above the tops of the trees, far enough that we can see the vast encompassing darkness of a midnight forest, a cluster of tiny faintly-glowing torches visible in a small clearing within it, perhaps a bird flying across the nearby night sky to give us perspective. That’s a scene with memorable impact, a scene that emphasizes the power of the unknown and practically forces us to use our imaginations. If Lost in the Woods had been a card in The Dark designed by Tucker or Myrfors, I’d wager its art would look something like that. The people who designed The Dark knew how to create open-ended visions that would stick with you, visions that would lead you to tell your own stories… Stories you’d try not to think about when you were going to bed at night.
Join me next time when I talk about more art from early Magic, including more pieces from Drew Tucker and cards from the game’s first stand-alone expansion, Ice Age!