Magic Art Matters: Moonlighting As An Artist

Thirty three years ago this Saturday, on July 20th 1969, three brave adventurers from a different era brought to a conclusion a fantastic voyage of epic proportions. Today, I’ll talk about Magic art that centers on the object of their journey.

Thirty three years ago this Saturday, on July 20th 1969, three brave adventurers from a different era brought to a conclusion a fantastic voyage of epic proportions. Their journey, which was in fact only half over, culminated when this simple yet profound phrase* crackled over the faint radio waves sent to millions listening anxiously back on Earth -“…Houston, Tranquility Base here; the Eagle has landed.”

That was uttered by Neil Armstrong, Commander of the Apollo 11 mission, just after he had successfully guided his craft, the Lunar Module Eagle, to the surface of the Moon.

Personally, I can not even read – let alone hear – that phrase without getting goosebumps and becoming filled with awe at the amazing accomplishment that it represented.

Not only was the landing the crowning achievement of the race to the Moon that President Kennedy had put in motion a mere nine years before, but the last moments of the descent to the surface were themselves filled with drama, tension and heroism that makes the heart quicken even these many years later. During the final descent Armstrong, having taken over manually for a descent that would have normally been computer-guided, calmly steered the Lunar Module away from the primary landing site. Calmly, that is, if you consider having a pulse of 150 beats per minute calm. Manual override was necessary because a field of boulders became evident at the originally-planned landing area once it was within sight.

All the while, onboard computers were issuing alarm warnings for low fuel. Post flight analysis revealed that a paltry thirty to fifty seconds of fuel remained when the engine was shutdown after landing. This was an incredibly small margin given what was at stake. All subsequent flights to the Moon had substantially more margin for error in terms of the amount of fuel remaining at touchdown. Assisting Armstrong in this endeavor were Lunar Module Pilot Edwin”Buzz” Aldrin – and Michael Collins**, who manned the Apollo command module while it remained in lunar orbit. The command module, named Columbia awaited the return of the astronauts from their brief mission on the surface. Their total time on the surface was 21.6 hours, 2 hours and 32 minutes of which were spent walking on the surface. The mission returned 44 pounds of lunar rock samples for later scientific research on Earth.

When I think of heroism, cool performance under extreme pressure, and the good things that man is capable of achieving when working as a team towards a noble goal I think of this mission. I consider the triumphs of the Apollo 11 crew and the many thousands of people who supported their mission during that summer month of July, long ago, in year of 1969.

As a tribute to this great achievement in history, and as a way to memorialize it, I have conducted a review of the many moons of Magic. This is by no means a comprehensive list*** – due, not only to the sheer number of Moon instances in Magic art, but also due to my lack of access to copies of all the images. Nonetheless, this critique contains enough substance to get an idea of how artists have incorporated this nearby celestial body into the cards that we use in our enjoyment of the game of Magic.

For this purposes of this article, I will focus primarily on the role of the moon as a part of the composition of each piece discussed. Other important aspects of artistic merit such as form, movement, depth of field, line quality, perspective, color, and draftsmanship will be highlighted briefly as needed. The key consideration, though, is the success of the moon as part of the composition.

When it comes to the success of a piece of artwork, the role of composition can’t be emphasized enough. The composition is the essence of the art, just as a foundation is critical to a building; a poorly-laid foundation will ultimately spell doom for whatever is put on top of it, whether it is a house, or a painting that is destined for inclusion on a Magic card.

As you will see, after looking at a number of these paintings general patterns emerge, and the types of compositions can be roughly categorized. It can also said that some of these categorical choices are better than others when it comes to the gauging the success of the artwork. Maybe this exercise will serve as warning to Wizards of the Coast that someone is looking, and that we care about how the moon looks in our cards. Perhaps future commissions that include the moon may be favorably influenced by this type of scrutiny.

But then again, maybe not. However, you have read this far, so maybe I am not the only one who cares. So without further adieu, I present a review of the many moons of Magic!

In the fine tradition of saving the best for last, I will save the best for last. But first, some of the weaker pieces that fall into the category of free-standing moons will be discussed.

In general these pieces feature the moon as a separate, free floating object in the composition, and suffer from lack of context or connection to other elements, if any are present.

The first (and perhaps worst) example is Chaos Moon from Ice Age.

The problem here is that the Moon just floats awkwardly – and somewhat lonesomely – in the frame. There is no story being told, and no context. There is a profound absence of depth, and no way to gauge the size of the Moon with respect to any other object of reference. For all we know, we are looking through a telescope. The overall result is bland and boring. To his credit, however, Drew Tucker has attempted to convey some form, and the soft edge on the right side helps out. Furthermore, he avoided centering the object exactly in the frame, and he has avoided the error of creating a tangent.

To review, a tangent occurs when two objects meet flushly, as if there edges were directly adjacent. Examples of this error show up in pieces that will be discussed later.

A piece which suffers from similar shortcomings is Blood Moon from Chronicles. All that was said for Chaos Moon applies here, except that Tom Wanerstrand has included an object in the foreground that improves the depth… Unfortunately, the object is rather ambiguous and therefore its effectiveness is somewhat compromised. The fact that the Moon rides higher in the frame makes this piece slightly more appealing in that the composition reveals context, and depth; however, this is minimized by the central placement in terms of left-to-right. The composition would have been vastly improved if it would have placed the moon off-center horizontally as well as vertically, and if the foreground object had been clarified and re-placed to provide balance. While the form is superior to that of Chaos Moon, in my experience the moon when illuminated like this – a quarter moon – a sharper delineation between light and dark is apparent. Too much effort has been expended making the light wrap around the sphere as a gradient, giving it an artificial appearance. Finally, I would expect this composition to have some type of a starry background; it looks like the Moon is simply suspended in front of a flat wall. Unfortunately, this detracts significantly from the piece.

Aesthir Glider is included in this group, despite there being a prominent character to share the composition, because the moon is free-standing in the background. Without the creature in the foreground, this looks like yet another Chaos Moon. Although these objects share the same frame, they do not appear as if they were composed with each other in mind with regard to lighting. By this, I mean that as strong the light is, coming off of the Moon you would expect that the creature would be shown much darker – almost in silhouette. It is only slightly darker than the Moon, which is not enough to correct the problem. In fact, there does seem to be a cast shadow coming off of the body of the bird, onto the underside of the root of its left wing. That implies a strong light source coming both from beneath and from left of the bird. This is simply incorrect, and reveals an error in both composition and lighting. Ruth Thompson has rendered a nice bird and given us a starry background for context, but that does not compensate for the other errors that are apparent.

(However, I have a fondness for Ruth, having two framed prints of her on my wall – The Ferrett, who probably should have said”of hers,” but occasionally is too amused by bad grammar to correct it)

Finally, notice the tangent formed by the top of the moon and the top of the frame. That pulls the moon into the same plane as the frame and defeats any sense of depth. This piece would have been greatly improved if the tangent had been corrected, and if the bird had been rendered more darkly – perhaps in near silhouette.

To wrap up the free-standing Moons, I will discuss two cards that you never want to see in your Sealed Deck pool; fortunately, the season has passed for these two in terms of set rotation, but I still have bitter memories of having had the misfortune to open – not only Planar Overlay, but Pale Moon as well. Well, maybe I did not ever open Planar Overlay in Sealed, but it makes my ‘bitter memory’ story more compelling and pathetic – so please forgive the exercise of poetic license this one time.

Thank you.

That thing about opening Pale Moon in sealed deck; that’s true – still bitter over that. Yep, still bitter.

The bad thing about the composition for Planar Overlay is that the object is perfectly centered, and therefore uninteresting. The good thing about it, among several, is that the color is interesting, and the white ripple effect which surrounds the Moon is interesting. It almost works as an abstract piece. The composition does have a number of varyingly sized objects in the background, and they are nicely spaced – so in this small way, the composition is good. Unfortunately, once again there is no foreground object of interest for depth.

In parting, if there is one other good thing about this card, it is that it is not as bad a card as Pale Moon. I guess that is something; not much, but something.

Pale Moon… What can I say?… Centered left-to-right – boring…ambiguous foreground object that confuses more than it clarifies; bad…white circular ripple effect emanating outwardly from the moon; I’ve never seen that in nature; disconcerting … Bad… Unknown object in the center of the moon; what is that thing?…am I looking up a tube, or down a tunnel, or down into a wishing well…

If so, I wish Mark Rosewater would stop hawking that ridiculous explanation for why ‘bad’ rares are printed. Does anyone buy that crazy explanation? When I am looking for a way to test my skills, that’s the first thing I think about -“…how can I make use of Pale Moon?” Yeah, right…that’s exactly what I do. You know what? I want my $3.29 back; I probably have more than one Pale Moon (I am pretty sure it is in Mint, Never Been Played condition), but I’ll settle for reimbursement on just that one. I’ll even pack it in a hard sleeve and send it to him… That is, if Mark wants it for one of his decks.

The next group of cards includes water, the moon, and its reflection in the water. The average quality in this group is very good, implying that it may be a good choice for an artist if given the latitude to include a reflecting body of water.

Overburden from Prophecy is the first instance for discussion. This is a very effective scene, in my estimation, a well-composed painting with three distinct planes of interest. In the foreground there are well-drawn characters in a group; their respective heights diminish gradually, meaning that they are in proper perspective. Their placement in a column that points from lower left to upper right in the frame, and culminates in the direction of the Moon itself. This choice provides depth and movement and adds to the visual appeal. The Moon sits nicely on the horizon, and is reflected serenely in the calm water. The clump of trees in the upper left, which is drawn in darker tones, provides excellent balance to the other elements in the scene. There are no tangents, or obvious errors in draftsmanship. John Matson has done a very nice job.

Somewhat less successful is Moonlit Wake from Mercadian Masques primarily due to a needlessly symmetric choice of composition. All elements except the”party of three” on the”little death raft” are centered left-to-right. Why it had to be so, I will never know… But picture if the tree-topped island had been displaced half of its own width to the right. If it had been drawn that way, the composition would have been much more successful. A secondary, but relatively minor problem is the tangent that the upper deck of the little death raft shares with the bottom edge of the shoreline. This confuses the viewer as to how far away the raft is from the shore and unfortunately tends to flatten the scene.

Bad Moon from Revised is included here due to the presence of what appears to be a small winding stream in the foreground. This piece is very simplistic, yet strangely effective in several ways. The gray-scale, monochromatic palette is appealing for this spooky card. The central placement of the Moon – left-to-right – is uninteresting, but the faintly drawn face that is apparent and its slight angle with respect to vertical compensate for that, and make for a nice picture. The play of light on the clouds gives context, and the foreground objects – the trees – while somewhat symmetrical, add depth. Adding to the depth is the technique of rendering from dark-to-light, receding from foreground to background. This effect starts with the two trees in the foreground, and is nicely done.

While my first impression of this card was negative, it kind of grew on me in its simplicity. Even though the face in the Moon is a little cartoonish, overall the piece is a nice composition.

Arguably the best among the water scenes is Defy Gravity from Judgment. The careful composition reveals great depth, and clearly places the character high in the sky, floating on the clouds. For once it is acceptable to hide the feet – unlike a previous discussion of the various incarnations of Gravedigger. We don’t need to see the figures connection to the ground, because he isn’t connected by design. I like the choice of color palette, which covers the range from dark blue to purple and near-black. Additionally, the flowing ribbon-like attachments to the robe are well done, clearly implying a gentle breeze and lending movement to the piece. The placement of all elements is good, and direction of the characters head effectively connects the foreground to the background and provides a natural way for our eye to travel within the painting.

That wraps up the water scenes, but now it is time to discuss one hard-to-categorize piece.

At first, I wanted to declare All Hallow’s Eve from Legends as the best overall piece of Moon art in Magic – however, when closely examining it I struggled to put into words why I thought it superior. The truth it, that it isn’t the best, but it does get some bonus points for its old-school appeal, and for how it evokes fond memories of childhood enjoyment of Halloween. Christopher Rush has created a nice piece – using stereotypical elements such as the pumpkin, cat, ghost, and moon – but unfortunately, when considered as a whole, it is found lacking in depth. All the characters occupy the same plane in the middleground, and there is no foreground object of interest. While a unique effect is achieved in the rendering of the central ghost character via its transparency and sinister expression, there is not much additional noteworthy substance. The new Moon is an interesting take, however, since it is not reflecting any light I am left to wonder – what is the source of the strong white edge outlines that are found on the Jack O’Lantern and cat? This card looks cool, is spooky, and evokes the spirit of Halloween, but other than that is just average.

The”best of the rest” feature characters in composition with the Moon.

Interestingly enough, among these remaining pieces, there are numerous instances of single characters composed with the Moon that can be considered nice pieces of art. Perhaps it is simply an effective formula for Magic art that is just intrinsically well-balanced.

Deathgazer from Mercadian Masques is a very nice piece; it is very rich in detail and texture. The stoic lizard is intimidating, and well-balanced by the moon. A particularly nice aspect is the soft way the crescent moon is rendered, and its shape slightly distorted.

Not many other pieces feature a crescent moon, and this one is very nicely done by Donato Giancola.

Dawn of the Dead from Torment is very appealing, mostly due to the careful attention to the balance between the positive and negative spaces. The best example of this is seen in the way the front character occupies the foreground, and overlaps the other creatures, without actually overwhelming them. His left leg (on the right side of the frame) intersects the background creature, but still gives it room to breathe… So to speak. There are no tangents there, even though a lesser artist could have easily made a mistake and unwittingly created several. Also, there are a number of beautiful negative spaces where little hot-spots of white light from the Moon in the background just peek through. This careful touch helps de-conflict the figures. Finally, the smallest of the background characters is exquisitely surrounded by the frame formed between the right arm and torso of the foremost creature.

Pete Venters shows here that he knows how to compose his scenes, and let his creatures share the stage effectively. Let’s not dwell on the fact though that he is also the artist responsible for bringing us Pale Moon. Let’s just keep on moving.

Sutured Ghoul is my second favorite composition that includes the moon. In this case, I believe that the figure is correctly drawn and planted in the composition very well. The effect of the arm drawn in perspective contributes to the depth, which is further enhanced in the background by the bats which are drawn silhouetted by the Moon. The moon itself is abstractly rendered, making it seem more like a symbol than a literal object. The bulk of the figure in the foreground, balanced by the moon makes for a very interesting scene.

The best overall instance of a Moon Magic card, amongst those that I have seen, is Treacherous Vampire from Judgment. Of all the Moons discussed I think this is the most ideal for its scene. It perfectly balances the spindly figure in the foreground, and creates great negative spaces with all that it is adjacent to it; the frame, the figures, and even the bats. Just the right amount of overlap with the edge of the frame has been achieved. Any more overlap, and the Moon looks too much like a boring half circle; any less and the risk is greater that there will be a tangent between it, and the top of the frame. The choice to tilt the scene off of vertical, as revealed by the angle of the trees, is effective, and the bats are both interestingly drawn and judiciously placed. Kev Walker has chosen to situate the vampire in three-quarter view, meaning that perspective must be carefully handled. This is true both in the direction that the creature is looking, as well as the direction of the right arm as it seems to rise out of the plane of the painting and toward the viewer. As can be seen in this composition, Walker has been successful in that regard. The limbs do not appear jumbled, and they are clear, distinct, and well-placed in order to achieve those appealing negative spaces.

By embarking on this review I have attempted to pay tribute to what I think is an important achievement in history. This is my way of celebrating the anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission****, which I have accomplished by taking a unique look at the many ways that the moon is used as an element in the artwork of Magic. As is evident here, the use of the moon is a popular tradition in Magic art; I am sure this trend will continue well into the future for many moons to come.

Michael Jay LaRue

Engineer Legend

[email protected]


* – This historic quote can be found at the timestamp ‘102:45:58’ within the transcript of the entire lunar landing sequence which is available at this link. Be warned that it is a fascinating, but lengthy read, so don’t forget to hit the browser ‘back’ button to return here to finish reading this article.

** – If you want to check out an old-school, and I really mean old-school (so old-school in fact that the phrase did not even exist back then) musical tribute to Michael Collins and his supporting role, as the astronaut who went all the way to the Moon back didn’t actually walk on it, check out Track 5 on Jethro Tull’s album Benefit at www.CDNow.com(the link plays a clip on Windows Media player). The track is titled”For Michael Collins, Jeffrey And Me”; this short excerpt, does not do the full piece justice, but listen for the last phrase,”…I’m with you, LEM, but it’s a shame that it was not me…” I would provide a link to a similar tribute by the Smashing Pumpkins, but I do not think they did one.

*** – Perhaps at a later date an update to this effort may be accomplished, with the intention of completing the picture. As it is, I am sure that the Ferrett has truly enjoyed handling all these images, and ensuring that all the right art shows up in the right spots; am-I-right? If you are interested in examining other instances, here is a partial list of additional cards not mentioned above that feature the Moon; where appropriate, some editorial comments have been included:

… plus many more that I have missed; someone should expand this list an keep a master copy – well at least this is a start… any volunteers?

**** – On a parting personal note, this is Saturday is also an anniversary for me; my birthday is July 20th. Isn’t it ironic that someone born in the dawn of the space age, who celebrates a birthday on the anniversary of the day man landed n the Moon, grew up to be an Aerospace engineer? Funny how things work out that way sometimes.

Props: Thanks to Ken Jenkins for assisting in the research that resulted in this initial list of Magic cards that include the Moon as an artistic element.

Note to self: Build a Moon Theme deck for multiplayer. Yep, I’ll get right on that!