Magic Art Matters: U/G Madness!

Regardless of whether you chose to run U/G yourself, you are going to see a boatload of Wild Mongrels that first Saturday in May; many Wonders will be pitched and there will be numerous flying Wurms, of both the Arrogant and Roaring variety. So why not take a closer look at the art on the core cards, and let your right brain take over for a bit?

Well, here we are in the final week leading up to Regionals. Magic sites ’round the net have been filled to the brim with chatter about various aspects of our preparations. It’s obvious that Regionals is a very popular tournament – and based on the buzz, it seems that a great turnout is all but certain.

Given that I have been trying to keep up with all the reading – and since I am so quick on the uptake, a fine practitioner of Magic, if I do say* so myself, I now feel able to make a couple of bold predictions. First, U/G in its various madness and threshold forms is going to make a very strong showing – and second, May 3rd is going to be a very, very long day of Magic.

Regardless of whether you chose to run U/G yourself, you are going to see a boatload of Wild Mongrels that first Saturday in May; many Wonders will be pitched and there will be numerous flying Wurms, of both the Arrogant and Roaring variety. As for myself, I’ve decided to hop on the bandwagon and run U/G Madness at Regionals.

After five or six rounds, though, with fatigue setting in, I can easily envision players growing tired – minds numb, having become saturated with tricky combat math, complex Compulsion decisions, and the eternal quandary – to loot or not to loot, that is the question.

If you find yourself worn out and weary, your left brain** frazzled, let me offer some thoughts to encourage an alternate way of looking at the situation: Switch gears! Give your left brain a little break, and look at the U/G deck you may be playing with, or against – or both – in a different way. Let your right brain fire up and take a few moments to appreciate the way the cards look in addition to how the cards play.

I say this because, when push comes to shove, not only is the core of the U/G deck full of powerful, efficient, and fun cards, they also happens to be mighty fine looking!

For all I know, there might even be some intangible benefit to your tournament results in slowing down a bit to consider the art. As linear, logical, and mathematical as Magic is, you are pretty much sitting there with your left brain in overdrive while your right brain just hums along in idle – so much dead weight, a freeloader mooching a ride. That can’t be good, using only half of your brain. Now, if somehow you were able to engage your right brain at the same time and exploit its spatial, non-linear, artistic strengths to the betterment of your game, wouldn’t that be great?

Keep in mind that perhaps this exploitation of the right brain may already be a subconscious factor in the success of some of the better players. Maybe it is evident in intuition, or a”sense” of the right play to make. Maybe it is evident in the abilities to assert some kind of Jedi influence over an opponent’s actions. If there is something”right-brained” that the better players are doing, maybe it is possible to identify and isolate it. If so, it would lend itself to improvement by practice and exercise.

Often, the first step to improving as a player is to set about mastering key left-brained aspects such as timing and the interaction of spells and abilities on the stack. Maybe there is something comparable regarding mastery of unexplored right-brain aspects.

I do not know how to suggest engaging your right brain for the playing of Magic right now – but simply considering the artistic aspect of the cards while you are playing couldn’t hurt and would seem to be a reasonable first step.

To begin the discussion of the art of U/G for Regionals, what better place to start than with the main character himself, the highly efficient, versatile, and arguably the best creature card in Standard: The Wild Mongrel himself?

Wild Mongrel - NM/M

Artistically speaking, this hound is just fine. He is clearly the central focus within the frame; there is no background clutter to compete with or distract from the character – I think that is fitting for a format-defining creature. The artist, Anthony S. Waters, has done a nice job compositionally by choosing a 3/4 -view; it is not a pure side view, nor is it a head-on view. This creates the impression of movement and forces perspective. Working in perspective has the further benefit of making the artist take care in properly conveying form and volume. Notice how the hips and hind legs seem smaller than the chest and forelegs – this is inherent in the artist’s choice for 3/4-view and seems to be drawn correctly.

Despite the fact that the Mongrel has somewhat large forelegs – which appear abnormally large for your standard dog – you will hear no complaints from me. Given that this is fantasy art and that this is a fantasy creature, there is no right or wrong. The artist is free to be creative and give us his impression of what a Wild Mongrel would look like – and in this case, I think it is effective.

As for any shortcomings, I do think this painting is weak in one area. It seems like the choice of lighting is flawed, or ambiguous at the very least. Given the highlights apparent on the back of the hound, and since there is a dark shadow immediately beneath it, a strong overhead light is implied. This is inconsistent with the other cues that seem to indicate backlighting. The golden light emanating from the deep background, in combination with edge lighting indicates backlighting. This effect is evident as the yellow-white fringes around the forelegs and tail. Strictly speaking, it can’t be both at the same time, and I would have preferred the artist to pick one and stick with. Keep in mind that this is minor and would not be cause for rework if I were the artistic director – I am just calling attention to it as one of the many considerations an artist must account for in composing a painting – consistency in the choice and implementation of the light source.

Overall, Waters did a nice job, and I like the painting of Wild Mongrel.

While on the subject of works by Waters, note that he is also responsible for another core card of U/G madness – Circular Logic.

Circular Logic - NM/M

Unfortunately, this does not seem to be as successful a painting. Personally, I can not discern what this art represents, or even how the image supports the theme of a madness counterspell. Is the central blue object some sort of twister, or a creature emerging from the ground? Since we are not privy to the instructions given to the artist for this piece, we can’t evaluate how successful he was in achieving what was requested. We’ll never know.

Looking at the card in a slightly different way, though, I can see a certain appeal. Taken as a purely abstract work, it is interesting in terms of the shapes and relationships of those shapes and their colors. I guess for Magic art I prefer more concrete imagery, and in this case I am just as happy that this is an instant – I’ll use it and then promptly place it in the graveyard.

Moving right along, what is everyone’s favorite madness weenie? You got it: The fast and effective Basking Rootwalla. Prior to looking at this creature closely I kind of took the little guy for granted, but Heather Hudson has produced a really wonderful painting here and I think it truly fits the mechanics of the card.

Basking Rootwalla - NM/M

To start with, the lizard is very nicely rendered, and I find it reminiscent of the naturalist style used by Una Fricker for her version of Thieving Magpie. This is a simple, no-frills painting of a lizard – which is, like the Wild Mongrel, drawn in 3/4-view. There is a nice line quality, and the perspective view helps to create a sense of volume – after all, no one wants to see a flat lizard, now do they? For this painting, Hudson has chosen a light source and then stuck with it – all the lighting cues are consistent and this adds to the success of the artwork. All the shadows cast by the legs of the lizard, as well as the tree limb itself, are compatible and seem to result from the same strong light source that appears to emanate from the upper right corner, outside the frame.

I also like the foggy yellow background effect – it adds to the atmosphere of the piece and serves to silhouette the lizard nicely. The composition is nice and yields a number of interesting negative spaces for us to enjoy. Overall, I think this is a fantastic piece, and I am very happy to see that a simple painting in a naturalist style still has a place in Magic art.

Wonder - NM/M

Wonder really spices things up for U/G and helps it to be a top contender. Rebecca Guay has given us her interpretation of this powerful Incarnation – but unfortunately, this piece is not one of her best. I find the reliance on the color gray for the character itself to be dismal and dreary. To be sure, there are hints of purple, blue, and green in the palette but not enough to counteract the down feeling I get from this art. Another limitation is the use of only two planes of depth – a middle ground where the character resides, and a deep background. There is no foreground to speak of, and the result is a lack of depth.

One strength of the painting is the compositional placement of the character; the frame is well utilized and there are many interesting negative spaces. The best example of this is the careful placement of the staff in the upper right corner.

Another key member of the cast, although I have been hearing that he is falling out of favor***, is the Merfolk Looter. The one I run, and the version I will talk about here, is Tristan Elwell’s from 7th Edition. This is not to discredit Ron Spencer’s version from Exodus; both are very comparable in the quality of their execution; I just happen to prefer murky atmospheric feeling of the art shown on the white-bordered card.

I know that Spencer’s version will get the nod from many of you simply due to it being black-bordered. That’s a good reason; I like a black border myself, but that’s not the main factor in my feelings about a card.

Merfolk Looter - NM/M

A particularly nice accomplishment here is the quality of the character itself. Tristan has created a believable Merfolk, which is based on well-formed and proportioned human anatomy from the waist up. The facial detail is exemplary, and through and through the creature appears to have volume, mass, and form. There is no comparison for success in this regard between the Looter and Wonder; the Looter is simply better.

This piece is also a success when it comes to composition. Not only is depth conveyed between foreground to background – dark to light when receding, the same rule applies underwater – but also in the vertical sense. By allowing the background seawater to be lighter towards the top of the frame and darker at the bottom, a natural setting is achieved – the deeper the water, the more ambient light from the surface is absorbed, and hence a darker appearance at depth. You probably noticed for yourself the fantastic negative spaces inherent in the composition.

A final item worth noting is the way the stream of gold coins seems to be gently trailing and falling as the Merfolk swims forward. If left only to the influence of gravity, the stream would be falling straight down in an uninteresting fashion. As shown here, though, the artist has perfectly captured how the coins might actually look as they fell through the water – a really nice touch. This is a perfect example of how movement can be captured, and how it drastically enhances the life-like qualities of a painting. It’s reasons like these that the Merfolk Looter is among my favorites of the U/G art all-stars.

Arrogant Wurm - NM/M

John Avon has provided a very nice painting in Arrogant Wurm. I am a huge fan of Avon’s lands, but I sometimes find his character work lacking. To me, he just seems more comfortable – and certainly less self-conscious – with his superb landscapes. The Arrogant Wurm though, in my mind, is an exception – this creature is outstanding! The most striking success is the sense of depth that is achieved. I would guess that this Wurm, like most others, is of a uniform thickness throughout its length. Notice, however, how expertly Avon has tapered the thickness. We take this as a visual cue that the creature is long, and that it recedes into the background.

A second element that promotes depth is the intricate and interesting foreground: The mossy rocks and branches have a beautiful texture and composition. By making the foreground so prominent, Avon has effectively made the viewer part of the scene, actually standing or crouching on the forest floor amidst the underbrush, contemplating the approach of this giant slithering creature. Unlike many foreground objects in Magic art which simply serve to add an interesting flourish and promote depth, Avon’s careful approach did exactly what it was intended to do; it puts us right into the action – an expertly-crafted painting in all respects!

Now for a couple of comments on some card choices that I run, but are that are not mainstream choices – I guess I just can’t suppress the rogue aspect of my Magic personality. These cards will only be discussed briefly, and not all cards mentioned will have an embedded card image included for reference.

In order to get another madness outlet – and to draw Disenchants that might otherwise be directed at my Compulsions – I run a couple of Patchwork Gnomes. I actually like both versions – Mike Raabe’s Tempest version, and Jerry Tertilli’s Odyssey version. Both are well executed and roughly comparable in terms of artistic accomplishment and storytelling. So this choice boils down to personal taste. For the sake of variety, I run a single copy of each.

Sage Owl - NM/M

To get a little old-school charm, and satisfy my personal fondness for fliers, I run a 6th Edition Sage Owl. This version by Mark Poole is substantially more competent than the version commissioned for 7th Edition. Why is it that re-commissioned work for base set reprints are so often worse than the original version?

Wizards published some interesting background on Poole’s owl a while back. I simply like the old-school flavor and think that the scene is nicely set in a library. As mentioned in Arcana, the portrait that hangs on the wall of the staircase is the same character that was featured on the original Counterspell. Perhaps Sage Owl is not an optimal card, but I have found it very useful in administering some early beats and for setting up my next several draws using its”comes into play” ability.

Another of my questionable card choices is Might of Oaks. Can you guess which version I prefer – 7th Edition, or Urza’s Legacy? I hope you guessed Ron Spencer’s Urza’s Legacy version – that is a great piece of Magic art! I guess I am hoping to catch somebody by surprise; I’d love to get through with an 8/8 Sage Owl. If it happens for me at Regionals, you can bet I’ll let you know.

Along the same lines, I run a single Krosan Beast. Kev Walker is one of my favorite artists and he did a great job on this card. Granted, it is a simple approach in a simple composition, but the misty quality of the art and the details on the creature’s head and face are very nice.

Well that about wraps it up; many of the core cards of Standard U/G have been dissected artistically, just in time for… what? I missed one? Roar of the Wurm…Oh all right, I guess I’ll talk about that one too.

Roar of the Wurm – what can I say? This is an outstanding card in all respects. For eleven mana, you get two 6/6 Wurm tokens. Even better, if time is of the essence, after first discarding the Roar to say, a Mongrel, you can flash it back for only 3G to get yourself a 6/6 token. Sounds pretty good to me. As for the art, it lives up to expectations and then some for such a game-swinging card.

Roar of the Wurm - NM/M

As is the case with so many really good paintings, the sense of depth that is successfully conveyed within such a small frame is awesome. There are three distinct planes: Foreground, middle, and background. Visual interest is spurred by the fact that each of these planes receives a slightly different artistic touch. The background is simple and atmospheric, and it is populated with interesting, well-placed shapes. The middle ground, which hosts the creature, reveals incredible detail, nice control of line quality, and careful usage of highlighting which establishes the source of light, and is used to express the form and mass of the creature. Finally, the foreground contains the only”man-made” object – and it too is expertly rendered. It almost looks like a photo – and once again, the expert control of lighting via highlights and shadows creates a believable and lifelike scene.

Walker has done a great job setting up the visual tension between the contrasting architectural and organic elements, and this effort pays off, it really makes the card memorable. Along those same lines, the use of the bright green interior lighting within the turret promotes storytelling. It indicates that, most likely the building is occupied, and whoever is in there is about to experience an untimely, and perhaps catastrophic decrease in their quality of life.

I really like the Roar – it is my favorite of the group, if not my favorite painting of the entire Odyssey block. My only regret is that it is a token-generating sorcery – it can only reside in hand or in the graveyard. That is too bad, because it would really make a great-looking permanent.

Now I am really finished, and don’t think for a minute that I”forgot” the Roar – I just saved the best for last!

For Regionals, I hope this overview helps you appreciate a different aspect of some of the cards you will play with, or will face off against. Who knows? Maybe it will even help spur your right brain into getting more involved with the game.

Michael Jay LaRue

Engineer Legend

[email protected]

* – Well you can take my opinion of my own Magic skills with a grain of salt, because, after all, I have tried to cast Overrun as an instant during tournament play; note to self – RTFC!

** – Playing Magic is a left brain activity; contemplating or creating Magic art is a right brain activity.

*** – From what I can tell, many have dropped the Looter for Aquamoebas. Please don’t get me started on the Aquamoeba art. I personally do not like the art at all, but I can’t articulate why… It just seems like, you know… Bad. In addition, I am really not that good at the subtleties of timing when it comes to using the power and toughness swap ability. I know the Aquamoeba is probably more effective creature in this environment, but I am sticking with the Looter. If nothing else, I can have fun drawing cards, discarding Rootwallas, and enjoying the superb art of the Looter.