Monday, December 10, 2018

The 6th Sin, the degrading and 'casualization' of MtG (Part 1: art and flavor)

Magic is certainly not the game it was once intended to be. If you need a simple example, look below.

Beta Print
Portal 2 print

Dominaria Print (most recent)

As we can tell through this general evolution of the iconic card Air Elemental, the game has certainly changed, not just in mechanic, but in style, in simplicity, and in direction. So what exactly is 'casualization?' The definition of casualization according to oxford is "the altering of working practices so that regular workers are re-employed on a casual or short-term basis." We obviously aren't talking about that. However, their is often another use for the the term, often when something is simplified, streamlined, or otherwise changed to hit a larger market.

When the game launched in 1993, it was, well a hot mess. While the cards were fine, the mechanics weren't, the rules were a mess 'being polite'. I largely consider this something of an open Beta, with the Revised rules being the finalized version of the rules, released a year later. It's art was simplistic, but effective, almost archaic, which was part of the charm. Tournaments were pretty complicated, and I'd dare say even more cutthroat. Worlds 94 at Gen Con was infamously a single elimination after a best of 3 match.

In reality, to discuss the casualization of Magic, we must break it into two parts. 

  • Art and Flavor: The simplification of the art itself, the flavor text, and other meta aspects of the cards themselves.
  • Rules: The rules of the game, of design philosophy behind these decisions, and the simplification of these aspects. 

As you can see, this is going to be a long, written article, which will probably be the longest article I've ever written. I hope to get this together, in a intelligent manner, now if we can, let's begin.

Art & Flavor

"If art isn't important, try selling the rules on a t-shirt"
--Attributed to Anson Maddocks

"Explore the shores of Imagination..."
-Early MtG Tagline 

When M:tG was first launched, as many of you know, it had no story. In fact, it's lack of story was part of it's design. Instead it was suppose to be used a generic pieces of fantasy archtypes and tropes. Instead, these pieces were suppose to be like toys, to feed the imagination of the players playing it. 

"Before I get to winded here, thank you for breathing life into these cards. The nostalgia brought me back to 93/94, your blog is showing me how to imagine myself a Planeswalker in Dominaria once more"--Russell Strawsine, Gunnarson's Bag, What does it mean to be Warrior?

If anyone says in some way, those words don't resonate with them, particularly among those who can say they played in the 90's, either had no imagination, or are lying. This was one of the strongest aspect's of it's early halcyon days. The Magic cards infamously designed like Tomes, pages (or Books) of powerful spells, complete with simple art, flavorful but simplistic borders, flavortext, and even things like Ad's and paraphernalia like deck boxes and binders. I'm sure if the modern concept of playmats existed, they would feature large art of cryptic runes, satanic symbols, and even abstract concepts to fit with the mystic theme.
Revised Deck box designed to look like a spellbook.
Legends Advertisement, promising many powerful spells and characters while revealing very little.
However, this doesn't do justice. Each set had it's own theme, for instance, Antiquities and Fallen Empire had a sort of 'archeology' theme, with the story being unrevealed with each pack. I've gushed way to much on how The Dark is an amazing mosaic of an art piece, capturing the Dark Ages of Dominaria, from flavor text, card art and color, even mechanics. Legends is a bit of a mess, but is a great sequel to limited edition. Even Ice Age cards 'feel' cold, with it's washed out, bland colors. Many art pieces feature breath around creatures, prominence of white, blue, and black in card art. While the ice age didn't translate well into rule mechanics, it did have a new type of Basic land, the infamous and ever popular 'Snow-Covered' land. 

However, this also translated into Flavor Text. While Fallen Empires and Ice Age didn't feature real world Quotes, ever expansion before it did. Most notable, Legends, which is the one expansion (until 9th) that featured quotes from the 'Modern Era'. The reason for this removal was initially for world cohesiveness, but would become another reason. 

So when did the art and Flavor start to change? Roughly about 95. Jesper Myrfors infamously left over disagreements (the reasons for vary from story to story, but it's known him like many early employees weren't happy with the direction Wizards of the Coast was taking with it's sudden success and wealth). This left an opening for the art Direction, and this allowed for one of Magic's most infamous art directors: Sue Ann-Harkey. 

Portrait of Sue-Ann Harkey, by Geof Darrow

Sue wanted an increased art quality with MtG, something flashier. Unfortunately she was also the person responsible with informing artists in the contract change between the old royalty model, to the new(er) model of a single fee for rights to the art.  Christopher Rush once commented, many years later: 

"There was also mention of some of the original artists being hard to work with and emotional. I take offense to this, when we were first creating the game, there were many artists (“Big Name artists”) that didn’t want to have anything to do with this. That left a handful of artists that BUSTED THIER ASSES to create artwork for the game, under a tight deadline. For transparency’s sake, I will be honest. We did the paintings for this game for $50 a painting. As an incentive, we were also given a royalty on sales as well as stock in the company. Since this was still a tiny company, based out of a basement with no guarantee of success that could not afford to pay that much for the art. For every one of us that did do art for the game, we did it out of joy and passion for a project we believed in."--In Response to 'an interview with Sue Ann Harkey Magic's greatest art director.

However, with the old guard gone, and between her scouting numerous cons, and Maria Cabardo (who was creative director at the time) having numerous connections to the world of Comics, it was a new time for Magic art.

For flavor, she's often credited with the 'feel' of Mirage block, with it's strong African/Arabian theme, however Pete Venters has claimed this to himself. While not quiet as cohesive or strict as what would come after it, it had a certain theme to it, that worked well. I often wonder how 'Meanderings' would have turned out under Myrfors, but I'm certain it wouldn't have become the expansion it did. She also did an improvement of boxes and magazine advertisements, but at the cost of the gritty old world flavor that came with Myrfors.
A side by side comparison of the two boxes.

While their was certainly more world building in this setting then previous, I've defended it numerous times, calling it 'the last old school expansion'. I mean, it even has a large, multi-card poem, called the 'Love song of Night and Day', which is an actual poem. ( 

While Harxley's days are rife with controversy, you can't understate how much she changed M:tG, for better or for worse.

This however, also marked the change in MtG story telling, and with it art. WotC had decided that MtG needed to exist not as an imaginative game, but as an Intellectual Property. One of the often cited and long compared IPs is Star Wars, which numerous times WotC had tried to emulate. 

"The Tempest expansion, for example, was loaded with "plot shots." Many people thought that the Weatherlight crew appeared too often—accordingly, the number of "crew shots" was reduced for the rest of the Rath cycle. Instead, later sets favored more depictions of the world beyond Gerrard and friends."--Pete Venters, What you see, is what you get. 6/1/09

Besides this, numerous changes in design philosophy had happened to the game. Depictions of Demons were removed after 4th, and the policy stayed until Onslaught in 2001. Sandra Evingham infamously removed the burning Pentagram from the back of Unholy Strength, turning it into 'Unholy Stretch' as I've always referred to it. Real world Flavortext was also slowly but surely filtered out of the game. By the half way point of the last decade, flavor text featuring the immortal words of Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Byron, and William Shakespear. Replaced with bad puns, tired jokes, character quotes, and the occasional actual exposition. Although as of written this, I can't find the exact article, I do know Mark Rosewater had called real world quotes 'edutainment', and wanted to see their removal from the game personally. 

The infamous change.

However, if I had to draw a cut off point, I think it would be Urza Block. Urza block introduced non-promo foil cards, with promo Lightning Dragon being a pre-release promo, and Urza's Legacy having them become a random card in a pack. I remember, one old neckbeard saying:

'I can't believe this game is still going on! I stopped playing when they introduced foil cards, I'm surprised that cards don't come with packs of gum'.

This was actually something of a revelation, because before this, I never really thought of foils as being a ploy to get more players into the game. During the years, different types of foils have been introduced, but you can read the basics of that in 'Losing Ones Identity'. I guess the succession of Pokemon Fever in the late 90's inspired them to copy the idea, and also make foil cards (though foil testprints of older cards do exist).

However, the change wasn't just here, in a few years (03), they changed the entire border of the card. I'm just repeating myself on discussing it, but it was no secret they changed it to make the game 'more accessible', but in turn, turned it pretty generic to other TCG's out at the time. Ironically, one of the big praises to it has been how much bigger the art box is, but we will get to why that's funny in a second.

As mentioned, the story went to be a character drama, but then a miracle happened, it went to a 'story of the week' setting, with each new block showing a new plane, and it's issues at hand. This is where Ravnica, Kamigawa, and Lorwyn came from. All Unique settings, that leave a mark of memory.  Sure it wasn't the mysterious settings of Myrfors, nor the grandiose world of Dominaria, but it was an honest attempt at making a good world to lose one's imagination in.

Planeswalkers were changed from being more akin to gods or forces of nature, to well, mage's. Once again, I'd be repeating myself if I went into details to steady, but the fact still stands this was the point where the change in story happened. Then on top of that, a simplification of these characters were made, to make them even more marketable, but that is just me repeating myself. We are currently in this, with the last several years being WotC trying to establish a 'rogue' gallery.

This brings us to the art. Magic art, for a very long time, was pretty memorable, and I dare say, pretty amazing. Sure, some of it was very simple, and some of it was questionable, but all of it was memorable to some right. Even later, when they switched to Carl Critchlow, the art didn't suffer much. 

In fact, one of the big controversies of the early 2000's was when Jeremy Cranford told fan favorite artist Rebecca Guay that her art was to feminine for MtG. This created a shit storm so big, that it eventually got referenced on a card.

'Sadly, the new art director, Jeremy Cranford, thinks my work is too feminine for the vision he has for the game. I would love to continue with Magic but it is not in my hands.'--Rebecca Guay, in an email to Rancored_Elf (source)

While the art direction of MtG is complicated, with focus not only on quality, but budget and direction as well.

While it's hard to pin point when exactly the art direction took a nose dive, I'd say it started with... what was that again:

Yes, the controversy that got a man fired. The sudden change in art direction, and numerous other issues can be attributed to this one moment. This literally marked a change in Magic art, and while most of the art for Return to Ravnica was already commissioned, Theros was not. Theros had a controversy over, how to put this lightly... diversity quota's. Something that's continued to this day, however, that isn't it.

The art, has gotten pretty damned bad.


In all fairness, it's still art, but this looks like a rough sketch at best, an unfinished product, and this isn't alone. Most of the arts biggest crime is, well it's generic and forgettable. An article on coolstuffinc. has said that this is due to nostalgia, we now all play with high functioning mythic rares, all whom have digitally imposed art. We simply know this isn't true. He (or anyone else) can claim confirmation bias, but in the same article he talks about digital artists cutting corners. However, for the ultimate premium rare, we got this great piece:

Crucible or Worlds

 as well as this

Hangarback Walker

 Just for a comparison, this is what the back coreset version of Hangarback Walker looks like:

While working on this article, I mentioned I was researching Sue-Ann, and how there was so much I didn't know about Mirage block. A local store owner, and competitive player mentioned he agree'd with Mark Rosewater that Mirage is a 'hot mess' and he agree's with him. This started an interesting conversation about design direction, and art. Which came to Impulse. I stated the original look was iconic, in it, a mage looks upon an irrational and off screen mistake, while the modern art could literally fit on any blue instant or sorcery.

Bryan Talbot's artistic masterpiece.

Izzy's fine, but generic piece.

Anyway the owner then says 'playing with Mirage cards makes me feel like I'm playing the Magic School Bus TCG' and then, this gem, 'the art is very dated, and although it's unique, most of it has aged very poorly'. Naturally, the only response I had was 'the Mona Lisa is very dated, and while it's unique, it has aged very poorly'. He responded with a 'are you going to compare Magic art with art art', I responded 'yes', and he left the argument, later saying 'we will agree to disagree'.

In simple, the art direction isn't distinct, it isn't memorable, I'd bet my last dollar its overanalyzed by the 'suits' Myrfors mentioned, made to be as cheap and inoffensive as possible, and then put onto the shelves, to be throw away cards for booster drafts. We will get to that aspect in the next part. (Chris's rebuttle)


  1. pains my soul to see how rad art from 1993/1994 was to its move to what is currently put out. things should not get worse over time they should improve. magic could easily step back from their casualization on art and provide us original quality less digital.

    1. There is nothing wrong with digital art, but the quality of the art that's the problem.

  2. I drafted a set for the first time in probably ten years tonight. First thing that hit me was how horrible the art is. Some is downright bad CG. Some you cant really tell what it is from a glance. So many cards are just a blurry mess of brownish cgi. Its really bad.

    1. Someone made a comment about how OS is the best games to watch via streaming because of the clear distinction of the art as well as the lack of foiling makes it easy to see on camera.