Magic Art Matters – My Prerelease Art Critique

StarCity’s latest Featured Writer attended the Onslaught prerelease – and he cracked the cards he wanted! Of course, Michael doesn’t play to win… He plays for pleasure, as he analyzes the prettiest cards he saw at his prerelease.

As I write, I am watching* game 3 of the World Series as the Angels are pummeling the Giants in the top of the eighth – the Angels wear red. Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy spins in the CD player – the album art is red. My recent articles in a series called”The Daily ‘Slaught”‘ began, and ended with discussions of Snapping Thragg, and Rorix Bladewing, respectively – highly red!

I feel a red-themed article brewing!

Flashback to the Onslaught prerelease held in San Diego – as I was sitting there opening my cards, perhaps groggy from our travel difficulties (see below) I could have sworn that the rare from pack #2, actually started talking to me. I thought I heard it saying in a deep dragon-y voice -“Hello Michael, I am Rorix Bladewing, Dragon Legend…”

I recklessly interrupted,”…Stop, say no more… you had me at Dragon Legend!” as I put it into the”must-play” pile. And so it was as I built my first Onslaught sealed deck.

So there you have it: Further evidence that red will play a big role in this article; a big red Dragon Legend has just made himself available for my pre-release deck.

Flashback again to the morning of the prerelease, earlier in the day – the scene is Kevin’s”backup” car, with the key word being”backup.” The two of us are heading southbound on I-5 towards San Diego, a mere hour and a half south of Los Angeles. We are already half-way there. The battery light on the dashboard of Kevin’s backup car?

You guessed it – it has just turned red!

Minutes before that we had heard an odd sound … Wap, wap, wap, fitzle, strump, strump, thwack! … but we thought nothing of it; must’ve run over some debris on the freeway.

Not until much later did we discover that must be the sound that a fan belt makes as it frays, disintegrates, and departs the mother ship.

The post red-light conversation went something like this:

Kevin (the owner and driver):”Uh…the red light just came on. What does that one mean?”

Me:”…looks like the charging system.”

Kevin:”Is that bad?”


Kevin:”We gonna be late?”

Me:”I don’t know… The battery will run down without it being charged by the alternator… We might just barely make it to the tournament before it quits; then we’ll just need to get a jump-start to get back to LA…”

Kevin:”…Think so?”

Me:”…Either that, or, it could quit outright while we are on the way… Hard to predict… The car is using electricity for the ignition and lights…Eventually, there won’t be enough charge to keep the ignition going…”

Kevin:”That doesn’t sound good.”

Me:”No, not good at all; you want to turn back and get my car… We have time…”

Kevin:”No dude, I said I’d drive… That wouldn’t be right. Let’s just keep going, we’ll make it… and if it dies once we get there, I don’t care, I’ll just leave it there, I don’t care about this car…”

Me:”Okay, whatever; there is always Amtrak”

Note: The preceding is a prophetic statement.

More quickly than you can counter Morphling with Force of Will, we were coasting to a stop a few miles north of Solano Beach, thirty miles shy of San Diego; fortunately, we were able to make it safely to the right shoulder of the freeway.

Long story short, we call AAA; thank goodness for cell phones! The truck arrives quickly, and soon thereafter the car is hooked up to one of those”pincer on the front tires” tow-trucks, and we are on our way to a garage in Solano Beach.

By the way, we made that short part of the trip while actually inside the car as it was attached to the tow truck. We were sitting tilted back at nearly a 45-degree angle, looking up through the windshield into the murky overcast sky. That didn’t seem too safe, but I guess we figured the tow truck guy knew what he was doing. I am not sure that was a good assumption, but we survived.

Now that I think about it, I would venture to guess that Kevin and I are the only Magic players to have ever been towed part-way to a pre-release. I know that there have been many entertaining roadtrip stories in the annals of Magic-lore, but has anyone else actually been towed part-way to a tourney?

It was wild; I do not recommend it. And kiddies, don’t try this at home.

Once the car had been dropped off at the garage for an estimate the tow truck guy was nice enough to drop us off at the Amtrak station minutes away in Solano Beach. For just $14 total, the two us we were southbound once again, none the worse for wear, in the comfy accommodations of the Amtrak Surfliner Sure, we were most likely going to be late for the tournament, but we reasoned we’ll at least be able to get into a later flight, no problems. Cool!

So we walk the final mile from the San Diego train station to the venue, staggering in near noon for a tournament that was supposed to start at 10 a.m.. Some things never change; we were a full two hours late, but we were still an hour early, considering the eventual start time of nearly 1 p.m. They can put a man on the Moon, but still, no Magic TO can start a tournament on time.

So there you have it; now you know that even a prerelease art critique can play host to a Magic roadtrip story. That’s the set up. Now I can start talking about the artwork.

As was the tradition that was inaugurated by my Judgment First Impressions article, I will focus on my favorite art amongst the cards I opened and used in my prerelease deck.

I opened some really nice cards and built a RUw (splash White for Whipcorder) deck. It was fun to play and I should have done much better with it. As if my Onslaught preview articles were clairvoyant, since I reviewed both of these cards, I was able to build a deck with both Snapping Thragg and Rorix Bladewing. Other key cards were three Mistform Stalkers, two Sage Aven, two Sonic Blasts, two Goblin Taskmasters, Wave of Indifference, Slate of Ancestry, and Airdrop Condor.

Having already discussed the Thragg and Rorix, I will focus on other cards, but these two are very nice paintings; I have yet to see any card from Onslaught that I like better than Rorix Bladewing – it is truly outstanding!

Consistent with the RED theme of this article let’s look at Mountain, card #344/350, by Sam Wood. This is a beautiful basic land and it stands out even among stiff competition offered in the form of John Avon’s Forest, #347/350, and Dan Frazier’s Swamp, #341/350, which are both very nice in their own right.

Wood’s Mountain is primarily distinguished by its depth. If you look closely, you will see that there are four distinct planes at different distances from the viewer. Wood has perfectly used both overlap, and tone gradation to show the depth. Remember that objects will fade from dark to light when moving from foreground to background; it is also apparent that the white peaks in the deep background are substantially farther away based on their relative paleness. The closer objects are darker, and their relative placement is clarified by the overlap.

In addition, I think it is a nice touch the way that the foreground features are rendered so crisply, and with such rich sandstone colors. The details of the spanning footbridges are exquisite. Similarly, the footpath in the upper right serves to connect the foreground to the middleground. This technique is also vital to providing movement to the piece; our eye tends to start in the lower right, then moves upwards, following the bridge, and arcs off to the left and into the deep background.

I get the impression that some Magic artists are intimidated by the challenge of having to work within the small space of a Magic card: I look to Wood’s Mountain as an example of what can be accomplished, and would encourage all Magic artists to strive for this level of achievement in terms of depth. Of course not all efforts call for such depth, but regardless, the more three dimensional, the better the painting.

Another card that caught my eye, and one that was fun to play with as well, was the Mistform Stalker. Forgive me for departing the red theme, but blue was part of the deck I built – and therefore a candidate for this pre-release art critique.

Once again, as with Battle Screech from the Judgment First Impressions article, artist Randy Gallegos is producing very appealing work. For other examples of impressive Onslaught work by Gallegos, see Sage Aven and Dive Bomber. The latter of which is very reminiscent of his Battle Screech from Judgment.

Regarding the Stalker, I think its twofold strengths are that it is both a finely rendered portrait, and overall, a very nice composition. The face is very well done, and is almost photo-realistic. To me, the form of the female face is so nicely done that I am tempted to conclude the artist used a live model for this rather than a photographic reference; the reason for this is that when drawing the human form, it is always preferable to use a model. The sad fact is that photography distorts everything it captures by its very nature: This happens because the lens of the camera is being used to capture a 3-D form and apply it to a piece of paper. This is, by definition, a distortion. The same applies to the television camera; many claim that the camera”adds 10 pounds” to the appearance of a person. I chalk this up to the distorting effect of the lens.

So it stands to reason that when an artist uses a photo reference, he is much more likely to propagate that very distortion into the painting. When drawing from life, though, the artist is performing a single translation. Believe me when I tell you that a trained eye can easily tell if something has been drawn from photo reference: The result is commonly described as”flat.” And an artist does not like to hear that someone thinks one of his paintings looks flat, as if it were drawn from a photo.

I am not claiming that I have an expert, trained eye; I am simply saying that to me, Gallegos’s portrait is vibrant and full enough that I would be surprised if it was drawn from photo.

In addition I appreciate the effect of the ghosted twin portrait in the background. It is nicely rendered in a monochromatic palette. I can not tell if Randy has used a Photoshop technique to”duplicate” the foreground figure, to simplify the process of achieving symmetry between the figures. It is a possibility, but I can’t tell. I do know from reading a Toby Wachter interview with John Avon that Avon uses Photoshop for some of his work to realize some very nice results. A good example of this is Avon’s Life Burst, which demonstrates an effect similar to the Mistform Stalker image.

Aside from these technical issues, I simply think that Gallegos has done a very nice job creating a moody and atmospheric painting that perfectly embodies this Illusion creature-type card. And compositionally, the choice to slightly cant the camera angle adds to the mysterious nature of the painting.

The last card that I want to discuss briefly, as I return to the red theme, is Solar Blast by Greg Staples. This is a simple, yet dramatic card that I like very much.

I’ll start by saying that I am happy to see this 4cc instant that deals three damage purely from a play point of view. Throw in the fact that it cycles for three, while yielding a point of damage as well as garnering a replacement card, and you’ve got yourself a nice versatile card. Just for grins, try casting this in combination with Lightning Rift for some cycling, card drawing, and direct damage fun. This very combo helped me kill a Kamahl, Fist of Krosa at the prerelease, and produced a game winning topdeck. Without that draw, I would have lost the game, even though by now I have forgotten what the card was.

Key to the success of this card is the composition, anatomy, and depth. I had a secondary motive for choosing this card – this card features a very nicely composed and drawn centaur. I offer it in contrast to Genesis, which I find extremely weak artistically. In Solar Blast perfect choices have been made compositionally. Just enough of the body is shown to convey”…hey, I am a centaur…” – and since the legs are not necessary, they are excluded. Conversely, on Genesis, more of the legs are shown, but they do not add to the drawing, and not enough of the legs are shown to clarify the carriage of weight. Staples, rather than introduce elements that he did not want to fully resolve, knew when to stop.

Furthermore, Staples has chosen a nice three-quarters view of his centaur. This is an interesting pose, and one that shows his ability to render human anatomy, and proportions. Unfortunately for Genesis, Zug chose to show a pure profile view, which is much easier to draw, and less interesting to the eye. Staples view also serves to show great depth within the arm span of the centaur. See how the left arm projects out of the canvas towards the viewer, while the right arm recedes. Both arms are drawn in proper perspective, and are convincing.

Finally, Staples, like Zug, uses the sun as a background element. However, in the case of Solar Blast, the sun is perfectly placed. It is overlapped by the creature’s head just enough to clarify it as part of the background, but without creating an annoying tangent. Staples’ sun nicely asserts itself in this composition, perfectly occupying the space allocated to it. On the other hand Zug’s sun is lost behind his Genesis centaur. Staples Solar Blast presents a far superior centaur, and I know I was sure happy to see it every time I drew it during the prerelease.

So there you have it; these are my first impressions of the Magic art given my exposure to it at the prerelease.

I think there are a number of very nice basic lands, much more so than those produced for Odyssey. In addition, I have been impressed over these last two sets, Judgment, and Onslaught, at how the work of Randy Gallegos seems to stand out, at least for me, in the small pools of cards that I have been handed at the last two prereleases.

Michael Jay LaRue

Engineer Legend

[email protected]

* – .Well, the word”watch” is somewhat misleading. Being the connected modern guy that I am, I am enjoying the game on the internet via Gameday, which is a live boxscore feature that can be found at the respective team’s homepage. I use the Angels page and I look for the Gameday logo, while the game is in progress. If you get a chance to watch a game this way, I highly recommend it; it’s a great way to multiplex, and the clean and well-organized graphics and game info are a real treat for the baseball fan.