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Creating The Look - The Art Of Magic Arena

Joseph Bradford Posted:
Interviews Not So MMO 0

Magic: The Gathering itself is known the world over as one of the most complex games in our age. With so many interactions, triggers and effects that could happen on any turn, Magic itself is lauded for that complexity. However, often missed by the casual onlooker is the art of MTGMagic Arena aims to bring that art alive digitally, but how does that happen? 

The artists who bring the vision of these gamemakers to light oftentimes are overlooked by your casual fan. However, many hardcore Magic players know these artists as well as they can recount the details of Thoughtseize. So how did the Magic Arena team go creating the art, as well as implementing the art of the paper game into the digital product? We were able to speak to Cynthia Sheppard, Sr. Art Director and Illustrator for Magic: The Gathering about this process a little bit.

MMORPG: How long have you been an artist for Wizards/working on Magic cards?

Cynthia Sheppard: I began working as a freelance illustrator for Wizards in 2009 for D&D, and began working for Magic the following year. My current title is Sr. Art Director for the Magic TCG, and I joined the company in-house in February 2015.  

MMORPG: When it comes to creating art for Magic in general, how does the process work? Since we know each set is crafted months to years in advance of its release, how much direction and lead time do the artists have to create their work?

CS: Art is commissioned roughly a year prior to its release in a card set. Each card illustration begins with the set’s lead writer, designer, and art director going through each individual card and talking through what it could be- a fun exercise with lots of open possibility! We each have goals for the set that we address at that early stage, for example we might want a target amount of action, or a certain number of cards showing knights, or X number of pieces that showcase a specific location at common. After we work out that puzzle, the lead writer will write art descriptions. The art director then works with the writer to hone them, and selects artists for each assignment, gives the artists assignment details, and works directly with them on sketch and final review over a six-week period.

Image via Daarken/Wizards of the Coast

MMORPG: What kind of direction does Wizards provide when determining the art on each card?

CS:  The writers’ art descriptions that the artist’s work from include basic info like art dimensions, which may also include references to a World Guide or character images. We try to give artists freedom in composition and to solve challenges in their own unique hand, while giving guidance based on what the cards do. Ultimately, we art directors hand-select artists for those art descriptions based on who we think will provide the best visual interpretation of card mechanics or specific characters.

MMORPG: For Arena Specifically, are there any challenges in bringing these stunning works from cardboard to the digital plane? Additionally, how involved are the original artists in bringing their visions to life on screen?

CS: At the time I’m writing this, card illustrations are all still commissioned with the paper TCG in mind first. What looks vibrant and clear on screen doesn’t always translate well into printed ink but is easier the other way around. We don’t mandate whether artists work traditionally or digitally, but the Imaging and Arena teams are fantastic at translating any image into a version that looks at home in a digital space.


MMORPG: In terms of the themes of each plane, like for instance the upcoming Throne of Eldraine, what is it like to create the worlds these stories take place in?

CS: Worldbuilding happens in multiple stages that begins with a central theme or combination of themes. Similar to creating art descriptions, a lot of early work happens in a room with the leads and others talking through what a setting based on those themes could be. We get all our ideas out onto the whiteboard, and then start picking solid directions – or sets of rules, really – that become our guideposts. Using Eldraine as an example, early work for the courts began as a reformatting of chivalric code to fit five colors.

MMORPG: How much collaboration do the writers and artists have to ensure that the vision and styles are at least somewhat consistent throughout since different artists may tackle the same character, but on a different card (for instance Nicol-Bolas depicted on his own Planeswalker card, yet is also depicted on multiple others such as Despark and Deliver Unto Evil)?

CS:  We work with skilled artists to create thousands of pieces -mountains- of concept art every year, which artists across multiple disciplines refer to as reference. Each major plane, for example, has its own world guide detailing the setting’s tone, environments, creatures, the look of the various people and fantasy races, and any major shape language or motifs associated with the plane or its in-world denizens. A world guide is typically between 200-300 pages of art and writing… and we do at least three per year!

Image via Raymond Swanland/Wizards of the Coast


MMORPG: While a card might get a full-art release, especially now that MTG Arena supports this for virtually every card, how difficult is it to ensure that the story the card is telling is accurately framed on a non-full art version?

CS: Our art descriptions include frame details, and often templates, which outline where the focus of the art needs to be. On a full-art card, for example, the artist needs to know what parts of the image will be cropped out, or covered by text or frame elements, so they can plan for all the important pieces of their illustration to live in the correct part of the art box. Everything else is additive.  

MMORPG: Do the artists have a full run down of the story of the plane before approaching their art, especially for those cards that directly depict scenes in the story itself?

CS: Not usually, but it depends on the set. Story is developed simultaneously with, or even after the art commissioning, though sometimes our writers will have some specific beats in mind (i.e. we know Vitu Ghazi topples the statue of Nicol Bolas… let’s see THAT!)

Featured image via Anna Steinbauer/Wizards of the Coast


Joseph Bradford

Joseph has been writing or podcasting about games in some form since about 2012. Having written for multiple major outlets such as IGN, Playboy, and more, Joseph started writing for MMORPG in 2015. When he's not writing or talking about games, you can typically find him hanging out with his 10-year old or playing Magic: The Gathering with his family. Also, don't get him started on why Balrogs *don't* have wings. You can find him on Twitter @LotrLore