Tact or Friction — Art and Flavor Review

This article is just about art, flavor text, and color. Seriously. If you want to read about mechanics, or casual decks, or the like, this isn’t for you, sorry. If you want the rant… well, it’s coming. But for now, we must make do with what we have. At the time of this writing, Future Sight was fully spoilered yesterday. This means I’m writing three weeks in advance — and that means that Future Sight is probably purchase-and-play legal right now. So it’s only five more articles from here before I can play with the cards myself. What better time, I suppose, to spout off angrily about things that matter the least in the game to the tournament scene?

Art and flavor are awfully subjective terms. Often, an art review is just an attempt to boil appreciation down into easily digested chunks, and a lot of the time they’re leading. People will like something when they’re given a reason to understand liking it as good. People like to feel smart, and if they kinda liked something, then are given a smart-sounding reason, you’ll often find they become extremely keen supporters of that thing. It’s a little sad, in a way: we, as human beings, should need no greater reason for appreciation and favor than our own, and we should not be judged, per se, for thinking differently, or valuing differently, especially when the subject is leisure.

I’m an opinionated git; I have strong views and I voice them as such – it’s just a thing I inherited from my father, and I still think I waver too much between overhanded, sarcastic dogma, and overly dithering would-be, could-bes. That’s why my set reviews have shrunk over time. The Dissension one I did was some thirty pages. Rich Hoaen, who admittedly hates every writer in the world, and most of the people who don’t write as well, was right to criticize, even if he did so unhelpfully.

This article is just about art, flavor text, and color. Seriously. If you want to read about mechanics, or casual decks, or the like, this isn’t for you, sorry. If you want the rant… well, it’s coming. But for now, we must make do with what we have. At the time of this writing, Future Sight was fully spoilered yesterday. This means I’m writing three weeks in advance – and that means that Future Sight is probably purchase-and-play legal right now. So it’s only five more articles from here before I can play with the cards myself. What better time, I suppose, to spout off angrily about things that matter the least in the game to the tournament scene?

First things first, I’d like to address the issue of the Future-Shifted frame. Political science has taught us that one of the single most powerful weapons you can have in your arsenal is incumbency. People will opt for the thing they’ve had over the thing they don’t when there’s no appreciable difference. Worse, people, being the illogical and nonsensical critters they are, will then convince themselves that they’ve made an informed, qualitative decision. You might just be the exception. You might just possibly, randomly, be one of the many people, who seeing the Future-Shifted frames had a deep and profound insight into the heart of Magic itself. But it’s just as likely that you’re not all that special, and that you’re just voting with your gut.

“I don’t like it” is the best possible answer you can give. You don’t have to justify that, man. You don’t have to prove it. You don’t have to denigrate the new card frame or pump up the old one – you have your opinion and you should be content with it. If someone wants your reasons, you don’t need more than that.

The thing is, the Future-Shifted frames are really just a different way to do the same thing. They give a bigger artwork, a bit of technical functionality (the fan-effect), and that’s about it. It brings limits and it removes limits – really, the difference between the two is a zero-sum from a technical level. If we could reboot Magic and implement the Future Frames from the start, then the fan effect might actually be worth it, but without a uniformity, they’re just a cute trick.

Me? I don’t care. I’m annoyingly moderate like that; I can’t fan my cards physically, so there’s no real difference to me in that regard. I like art, but most of the time the cards don’t do the art justice. Lands especially. Ultimately… it’s a zero-sum. There’s pros and cons for each one, and I don’t mind either.

Bet you wanted something more vitriolic than that, eh?

Barren Glory
Huh. A hand.

Intervention Pact
If I don’t miss my mark (Wikipedia currently fails me), this is the artist who did the promo work for Mirrormask, a supposedly awesome film written by Neil Gaiman. After Neverwhere, and reading his short stories, I’ve felt I might not be quite so interested in Mirrormask. That said, the gent has a very distinctive, very clear visual style, and it does look pleasantly ephemeral. I wish they’d done more with the pacts, some kind of linked visual theme, yet I can’t coherently provide any such description.

That being said, however, this is an instant that looks like an instant. Unlike the card it’s inspired by (which honestly, has had some of the worst art in Magic), Intervention Pact has a very clear kind of non-focus; it doesn’t draw itself onto the hand, or on any personality or person, but instead on the action of the sword being halted in a bare hand. It’s good art.

Judge Unworthy
See, this art feels like it was supposed to be a Blue card. It looks like the creature is Einsteining into a tiny, drawn little hole in space, and it looks more like it’s just been re-colored to a golden-white blaze of light rather than a blue-black tempest of time.

The ultimate problem I have is that the card name and mechanic (which does feature choice, it does feature a kind of transaction) feels like it could have been better served by some kind of powerful effect and a different artwork. In this case, Judge Unworthy feels like it’d be a simple, weighted rule: That’s it, you lose, go home. Judge Unworthy is not the milling around, maybe you are, maybe you aren’t, no, this is White at its finest: You’re not with us, therefore, you are wrong.

This card could better be called Violent Deliberation or something. Its card name had to be short, of course to keep it from being too hard to template with Scry. Why not Catechise? That has the divvying up situation we see on Riddle of Lightning, it allows for questioning (is this removal going to be good enough), and it has the greater understanding thanks to that questioning.

If someone dies while you’re asking, it’s not your fault. That’s how we learn.

Aven Mindcensor
I mean this nicely, Bec, but people have necks, even Aven. Yes, perspective, yes, the angle, but that doesn’t change how it looks. You’re the artist; pick an angle that doesn’t make the subject look like he’s made like a lego man.

Blade of the Sixth Pride
Now, this is interesting. See, one of my problems with vanilla creatures is that you only really get to do two things with them. First, you can crap up their text box with flavor that nobody will read, because, by and large, vanilla creatures are not heavily played. Barring for an Isamaru, or a Metallic Sliver, creatures which lack all abilities won’t be played in competitive decks, so people won’t pick them up to play them either.

So, if Vanilla creatures must be – and, supposedly they must – then this is a nice and interesting way to do them. Why bother with the flavor text? Give people something nice and full-screen to use, something they can at least use as a token, or put in a nice art binder.

That said, my second thought is the interesting design question: How can I make a vanilla creature good? And that’s the problem. I’d want to make any card that did this – this full-card image – better, by adding something to it. In the case of the Blade, it’s got something; it’s a 3/1 Rebel. On the other hand, that’s well, well below the curve for White, and I think they could have done something more interesting, as well as give it the Rebel type.

I said it in my article on White: Give white a hybrid of Rebels and Slivers. Let White be communal.

Goldmeadow Lookout
I think this guy used to visit my gaming store and play Elves a lot.

Imperial Mask
Ummm… “Imperial” is apparently slang for “wardrobe.” She has coins, a dagger, pearls, hand-drums, a tankard and … a hand mirror? All in her hair? Ummm… I think this is a case of the art being dredged out of the bin and used despite itself. Unless, of course, emperors are, you know, prone to carrying around odd and ridiculous things in their hair as a matter of course in this future environment.

Luscent Liminid
”Liminid” doesn’t mean “pregnant llama,” so I think this one’s another dead art card.

Oriss, Samite Guardian
I’m going to try and skirt the obvious here, and mention instead that Oriss has a very Leia-like look to her. It’s quite charming and alluring.

Patrician’s Scorn
Now, this is exciting. Who? Does what? And now she’s dead? So a white city ruled over by a white liege who is dead? That sound interesting. More interesting than a white city ruled over by a white liege who cannot die, or a white city ruled over by a white liege who effectively never dies, or a white city ruled over by a white liege who’s afraid of dying.

Seht’s Tiger
Animal Crowns: The newest fashion craze in the future, harkening back to the super-retro Gobhobbler Rats.

Cryptic Annelid
The word “Annelid” is too close in my mind to Anurid; I kept looking for the visual frog-like cues that suggest the Anurid type, when really, this creature is more about being a kind of mystery-bacteria. Still, it’s a neat looking wormy thing, and kudos for the old reference; I just wish it didn’t sound so similar to Anurid.

Magus of the Future
Looks like one of the Observers from MST3K.

Mystic Speculation
This one also feels like a dredged-up artwork that really was meant to do something else. You speculate by shoving your sword into something? And seeing what look like intestinal parasites?

Pact of Negation
Well, we know this one’s an old artwork.

Take Possession
And again, a dead-art look. I mean, this looks more like a White removal spell, a healthy, wealthy and not-very-wise fop having his life of folly and riches being simply stripped away and him being turned into a poor, helpless peasant. With the art as it is, it feels really inappropriate – but then, most of the set feels like it was composed of leftovers and simple ideas – I mean, I honestly feel the “split second” sorceries feel stupid. It’s… it’s so fast that it can’t be responded to, but it’s slow enough you can only do it when you’ve got a lot of time to concentrate? I dunno. It doesn’t feel right to me.

Bonded Fetch
This is one of the first Future-Shifted cards I saw where the flavor text grabbed me and prompted me to want the block that it was from. A world in which Blue is pursuing madness; a world where Blue was doing something it Really Bloody Shouldn’t, and Blue wizards were going so far as to graft onto themselves little alien parasites just to increase their own understanding of this abortive knowledge?

It’d be time for cards like Cthulonite Hermit, and that would be awesome.

Linessa, Zephyr Mage
I mentioned in the previous article that Linessa’s grandma was a hottie, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate Linessa, too.

The flavor’s a bit weak. Hell, the flavor text is just plain wrong: Power in Magic, you know, winning almost always goes hand in hand with not paying for things. Go ask Menendian and Star Wars Kid. See how many good spells they resolve that cost no mana. On the other hand, the art’s great; the color pie being shattered… and yet it doesn’t feel all that much like it’s actually happening, you know?

Spin into Myth
While I like the rippling effect of turning a creature into patterns, the actual creature itself looks very amateurish. The artist’s name is new to me, but I’m not a big artist buff – I just know the cards I like and the artists I really do like.

Grave Peril
And thus the triad is complete; Cradle to Grave, Premature Burial, and now… Grave Peril. Instant, sorcery, and enchantment; present, past and future. I like; it’s a very nicely done little list.

It’s also, annoyingly, a way to kill Quagnoth.

Magus of the Abyss

“Craaaawliiing iiiin my skiiiiin…”

Putrid Cyclops
Another dead-art one. Cyclops, in Magic already had a very rare and particular flavor, and this guy doesn’t relate to it. A bit of a shame that; it would be nicer if the card was either a creature type that matters (i.e., wasn’t a singleton when there’s a format that cares about more-than-singletons), and if it somehow related to a creature who was able to see and predict and alter the future, even if it was potentially at the cost of his own life. Perhaps a Graveborn Seer, as a reference to Graveborn Muse? Oh, I don’t know. It just feels like they had a little bit of room to work on this card, and they just didn’t pay attention.

Oblivion Crown
No room to reference Wild Mongrel?

Slaughter Pact
Weak name. Evokes a better phrase (Suicide Pact) that’s harder to evoke in the game terms.

Grave Scrabbler
Now that is some appropriately creepy and ugly art. I don’t think he’ll ever see competitive play, but I’m sure a few Limited players are happy to have Uncle Fester’s Uncle serving duty.

Street Wraith
Are we going to revisit Ravnica? I mean, that’s where this character would fit. It might be nice to visit a setting like Ravnica but without its ridiculous excess. Creative has to learn to allow worlds rather than try and force together things that don’t work as well as they think they do – a world with cities like Ravnica could be cooler than a world that is just one, gigantic, monolithic city.

Yixlid Jailer
Anyone able to tell me what the anagram is? Whose name is this in disguise? [It’s Ray Lidijlixe. I think he’s in Brand. – Craig.]

Pyromancer’s Swath
Yeah, but water colors produce so much better art, y’know. I mean, geeze, who would ever let a computer handle anything artistic?

Boldwyr Intimidator
Hey, look, it’s something mechanically interesting that lets red reach out of its part of the color pie (gasp!) while still maintaining its position within the color pie (gasp!!!) and looks cool too! Shame it’s costed so highly.

I don’t know when we’ll see Ugin, Wizards, but please, make it soon.

Homing Sliver
Uh… did you guys inform the artist that the Sliver kinda had to, I dunno, do something? And could you perhaps consider making it so the name made some sense in relation to the ability? A sliver that gives the slivers in your hand complete mutability? Ignoring for a moment how utterly random it is to put a tribal-based creature tutor in Red (you just didn’t have any better ideas, did you?), the Homing Sliver is just a kind of mish-mash. Honestly, couldn’t they have put the Green ability on the Black sliver (whose slivers tend to not pack high power), the Black ability on the Red sliver, and the Red ability on the Green sliver?

A simple reshuffle, and we’re cooking with gas. Then someone else who’s writing for another site will complain about how stupidly done that was, and that slivercycling clearly belongs in Blue.

Actually, thinkin’ about it, I’m probably the only writer sad enough to give a crap about this.

Steamflogger Boss
I’m just letting you know, this guy gets his own category when I get to ranting. For now, his abilities sound interesting, but since we have no idea what they do, we’ve no idea if he’s cool and flavorsome, or just the new One With Nothing. Wouldn’t you love to open your hard-earned booster and get an Eighth Edition common?

Tarox Bladewing
For a start, the idea of a Dragon war – of Dragons hunting Dragons, and the scion of Rorix himself, the undead lich-dragon, as the final victor in this massive storyline strikes me as a fantastic setting. You’d just need to actually let all colors compete on Dragons. Further to that, I normally would have thought Todd Lockwood for this art piece; you could get Darrel Riche to do it as a tribute to the original Rorix, but then you’d have to deal with another high-profile Dragon looking like ass. Aleksi Bricolt did a great job, however; the fire effects are impressive, the art’s got a nice sense of motion, and you can see Tarox’s third wing as a subtle little nod to his bloodline, and yet he lost the snakelike neck and head and gained horns, again decreasing the looks-like-ass factor.

Force of Savagery
The flavor of Force of Savagery is almost… well, it embodies Green, really. It’s a creature that might be appealing on paper, but dies before it ever gets to connect with your opponent’s face. A very nicely done bit of dovetailing the flavor of the color pie to the creature’s mechanics.

Kavu Primarch
Alright, you idiots. What the hell is wrong with you? You get a piece of art like this, a piece of art from Kev Walker, who can do giant, smashing monsters better than anyone who isn’t Todd Lockwood (and sometimes Wayne England) and you waste that art on this? A draft common? Kavu Primarch can be a Hill Giant (not good enough for Green) or a 7/7 for eight mana. Eight mana gets you Akroma in two colors now, dude. Convoke is almost a zero sum anyway – while you can have four dudes on the table on turn 4, so you can spit this fellow out as a 7/7 early, he still dies to everything, he doesn’t trample, and he’s as uncomplicated as they get.

And you wasted the art.

Look at that thing! He’s enormous! He’s powerful! To put art like that on a card that won’t see constructed play is a real waste, in my opinion. Limited players will probably tell me if I’m off my rocker about his quality, but most high-profile, good art cards tend to be good in multiple formats. This… the art’s just been wasted.

Print this card as is, since I doubt it matters at all. Go for it. But do not waste art like this on it, man… I mean, with that art, I was expecting the second coming of Kavu Titan. Something like:

Kavu Primarch – 1G
Kicker 3 or GGG
If the 3 kicker cost was paid, ~ comes into play with 3 +1/+1 counters on it. If the GGG cost was played, it comes into play with four +2/+2 counters on it and gains trample.

Something badass. Not… this.

Llanowar Empath
This art, I am going to bet, was commissioned to be a reference in one of the other two sets to Master Of the Hunt, but they just couldn’t give banding good reminder text, so they junked it. Then they made a filler card to go with it. It’s a shame – the wolves are the coolest part of his art.

Llanowar Mentor
Continues the proud tradition of teaching Llanowar Elves how to be as fugly, ripped-up and overbound as elves aren’t. Setting a fine example there, chief – I’d never have mistaken you for a graceful member of a pacific, nature-loving race of elegant humanoids who are more slight and magically inclined than humans.

Quite Disrepair
It’s, uh… is that Feroz’s ban?

Continuing the trend of introducing something new, interesting and powerful into the format, then pushing it to ensure that players will like the mechanic (because we don’t want Spiritcraft 2.0), Wizards decide to flavor things so green doesn’t like the new thing, and rail against it as ineffectually and pathetically as possible (because we don’t want to hose the mechanic too aggressively).

Sprout Swarm
It’d be awesome if this card made different tokens to the normal ones produced by other TSP block cards on MTGO.

Baru, Fist of Krosa
Doesn’t look very human. In fact, I don’t know many humans with green faces.

Nacatl War-Pride
Hmm. I like the sound of this. Aztec, pack-hunting tribal cat warriors? It’ll be so interesting and different, and so much better than when Wizards made Persian, pack-hunting tribal cat warriors. And then moreso than Generically European Fantasy pack-hunting tribal cat warriors.

But in all seriousness, I think the Aztec flavor would be really cool.

Virulent Sliver
I think the artist took the wrong direction here. Slivers are composed of a tail, an arm, and that spade-shaped head. In this guy’s case, you instead have a creature that has a tail, a tail, and a spade-shaped head. I love the markings and the motion of the picture, so it’s a real damn shame that that different direction was taken, because it’ll bug me whenever I see the card.

Jhoira of the Ghitu
Her hair’s just a little bit too big for her head, and her head’s just a little bit too big for her body. A shame – she looks good aside from that, and the little touch of her wearing (discarded?) Tolarian Time-traveling Gear reminds us of the nostalgia element of the block, a little easter egg for those who noticed it.

Akroma’s Memorial
Okay, she’s dead now. Again. Can we please go another three or four years without Akroma, Akroma, Akroma?

This baffles me. Why’s this an artifact? Why isn’t it Green? Hell, even though that’s the a really appropriate flavor for the mechanics, why isn’t it Blue, since, you know, Blue has the trend of being powerful and stupid and getting all the cool stuff? Surely this effect had so many better homes, flavor-wise, than in “nothing?” Artifact Creatures, according to Mark Rosewater, should be “worse than Blue creatures.” That means, that they could print this guy, ostensibly, in Green as a one-drop, right?

I kid, I kid. Still; this is a creature who doesn’t die, and who by extrapolation, feeds on the time rifts (Epoch Parasite); if it would die, it instead flees to the future, invigorated and empowered by its trip. Such awesome flavor. Such a shame it’s… (sigh) You know.

Llanowar Reborn
The most visually intense of the uncommon lands, this is a really gorgeous little land. I hope we get this one in the wallpaper files. You hear me, Wizards? Yeah, I know I called you idiots up there, but you know, water under the bridge, right?

New Benalia
Someone complained about it not making sense that Benalia led to scrying. I think that’s pretty funny; part of the nature of civilization is that it lends itself to planning, and that a robust new settlement will scout out and understand its surroundings. In an environment like Time Spiral… isn’t the ability to peek a little into next week done primarily by taking a quick stroll a few meters west?

Grove of the Burnwillows
The idea of plants that natively burn, that constantly exude oil that is sustained in constant flames… not what we’re seeing here, but the lovely visual effect of the golden willow trees would, I imagine, incite a whole realm of beautiful folk stories. I want to know where these Burnwillows are; I want to know what land is so rich in mana, so rich in life that drawing energy from the land spills over in an invigorating stream over everyone who’s even nearby.

Horizon Canopy
Where is this? What world do we visit that has a rainforest reaching to the very edge of the sky, a place where somehow, amidst the unrelenting and untamed places of nature, we find root for white civilization, spiritualism and ideals? I wonder, I wonder indeed…

So here we are, at the end of this little tour. For all that there’s a lot of mishmashes, missed opportunities and wasted potential, the art in this set is gorgeous. The flavor department – when they actually did their job – did a fantastic job of giving us little, keyhole-glimpses of whole worlds. The worlds are evocative and interesting, even without any kind of background, and I want to visit some of them very soon.

The Future-Shifted frame, still a contentious issue, manages to be functional and manages to avoid getting in the way, which I feel is important. Yes, some will complain, but they’re not the standard, nor are they likely to become the standard; diehards and holdouts for the first card frames persist, even though those frames are technically less helpful to modern designers than the new ones. The Android’s Uterus serves us well, and gives us a bigger art box to boot.

So here we are, in the median leg of the journey. I’ve now concluded my… opinions on the artwork, which you all know to be just that – opinions. I’m a strongly opinionated person, and while I have stated what I’ve stated hard, I want to remind you all that if you disagree, it’s cool. This is the most subjective type of review in Magic, and who knows? Maybe in six months, after playing with the Future-Shifted frames, I’ll hate them more than I hate Silhana Ledgewalker.

Hugs and Kisses
Talen Lee
talen at dodo dot com dot au