The Demon In The Details: A Look Inside Magic Cosplay

Grand Prix Washington DC will feature great cosplayers, all of which have something in common: They are all heavily influenced by the masterful work of MJ Scott. In this incredible essay, she talks about the craziness, the craft, and the community behind those gorgeous costumes.

Famine by Karla Ortiz.

“Better to starve to death than be bored to death.”

Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration—but I’ve found, as long as we don’t take her too literally, that Liliana usually has answers for most problems—both on and off the battlefield.

And really, life is a battlefield, right?

My name is MJ Scott, and I wrote the flavor text on Famine. I am, amongst other things, the editor of Bennie Smith’s The Complete Commander and a freelance writer who helps the Creative team over at Wizards of the Coast “git er done.” I’ve been geeking out since before many of you were born (those demonic pacts—so useful).

I’m also a cosplayer, wife, mother, ex-card alterist, and one of the progenitors of 8-Rack in Modern. Jack of all trades. Master of puppets. I play black. Or red. Or white. In Modern. Or Mono-Blue Tron. Okay, let’s be real: I’ll play anything but green, though some of my best friends are green mages.

But today I’m not here to talk about writing, or Modern, or my favorite flavor of the color pie. I’m here to talk about cosplay.

Why? Because cosplay, like Magic, can save your life—even if it can’t prevent you from being stuck in the underworld of Theros.

Elspeth Tirel cosplay by GacktLover666, photo by Ingrid A J Photography.

The reality is that most of us spend our time on this Earth surviving. Not living—just surviving. We work hard to secure the means to buy food and pay our rent. We make decisions based on what’s practical and not what we’re passionate about. We learn to “be happy” with just being “not unhappy.” We endure boredom. We endure loneliness. We sit at the banquet table of life, waiting for someone to save us from emotionally and creatively starving until we’re dried-out old cadaverous husks of the vibrant, passionate, and creative people we once were.

And we were all born that way. Vibrant, passionate, creative.

Left: Air Bubbles as Hanna, Ship’s Navigator, photo by Journeys in Color. Right: The promo version of Hanna by Terese Nielsen, which will be available on a playmat for the first time at Grand Prix Washington DC.

Most people don’t even realize they’re missing out on the feast, because their senses have been deadened so long. They don’t even remember that they used to know how to create.

They live a life of famine. Bored. To death.

Be Inspired

I’m assuming that since you’re reading this article, that you play Magic. And so there might be hope, for you.

Now, if you have a way to earn money and are physically able to provide for yourself, that’s great, and you should be thankful. We should all be thankful for that, because some people don’t have those most basic freedoms and privileges–they shouldn’t be taken for granted. But after those basic needs are attended to, we’re conditioned to be content.

Reject that.

Narset Transcendent by Moxy Cosplay, photo editing by James Arnold.

I began playing Magic during Conflux. Ripped a foil Nicol Bolas and the rest is history. Magic gave me a community, a platform, an outlet for my creative energies. The primary catalyst? An article written by Patrick Chapin, published right here on SCG, in which he quoted a Diesel jeans commercial. Yes. Believe it.

“Be willing to be stupid. If you haven’t already, please watch this Diesel advertisement. I’m not a guy who goes around linking to jeans advertisements, but honestly I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an advertisement that was an absolute must-watch strategically. Seriously understanding this advertisement’s message (outside of just associating these ideas with Diesel) will help one bring excellence into their lives.” —Patrick Chapin

Decatur, Alabama’s Slade Loves Cosplay, as Domri Rade, took a short ‘walk to a Planeswalker meetup.

I never did get any Diesel jeans—I looked, who spends $80 on jeans?!—but I did get a fire lit under the back pockets of my $5 Goodwill Levi’s to get stupid, big time. Basically the idea was to increase my risk tolerance for doing things outside of what’s conventionally labeled “smart.” So I pitched articles to former Gathering Magic editor Trick Jarrett. I flung myself on the marble steps of Wizards of the Coast’s tower of high sorcery, begging for a chance as a flavor writer.

I started dressing up in costumes.

And I learned that fortune does favor the bold. I became a staff writer for Gathering Magic. I worked on flavor for Theros. Then Commander 2013. Then Fate Reforged, and more. I made the Top Ten of the Ignite Your Spark contest in 2014, but never felt sillier than when I poured poster paint all over myself to be Vraska. Not to worry—I’ve learned a lot since then.

You don’t have to do it perfectly, you just have to do it with passion. Whether it’s slinging spells or making costumes, you’re only going to truly live if you get stupid. As Beyonce’ recently put it: “What does fear taste like? Success. I have accomplished nothing without a little taste of fear in my mouth.”

Nom nom.

NinaLaNoire as Liliana Vess.

It can be hard to be the first in unexplored territory, especially for women in gaming. Canadian cosplayer NinaLaNoire was an early adopter of MTG cosplay, debuting an elaborate Liliana Vess in the spring of 2011 that influenced many well-known cosplayers in the community today. I remember seeing a video clip of this cosplay with NinaLaNoire doing a slow turn and explaining the painstaking work that went into the costume. Silks. Velvet. Molded leather. Lots of sewing to finish all the edges. I might be recalling the exact ingredients incorrectly, but the sum total was a lasting, delectable impression of evil creative luxury.

Northern California cosplayer Christine Sprankle as Elspeth with Brian Kibler at Worlds 2011.

The transformative moment for Magic cosplay—when it became a “thing” in the collective hive mind, in other words—occurred when Christine Sprankle appeared as Elspeth at 2011 Worlds and was featured on the Mothership. Showing guts worthy of a knight of Bant, Sprankle took a risk and it paid off; impressing both Worlds attendees and eventually Mark Rosewater himself. She’s gone on to become the “face” of Magic cosplay and can be seen these days at many a Grand Prix.

The great thing about MTG cosplay is that every costumer I’ve talked with is also a Magic player.

“I mostly play around with my white token decks and my B/W lifegain decks,” says Mary Arroz, an Elspeth cosplayer. “I have a huge soft spot for white cards, mostly because I find their illustrations so attractive!”

The Canadians represent at PAX: Avacyn by SpaceHamster, Archangel of Tithes by Purple Rogue, and David Felton as Griselbrand. Photo/editing by Soul Studios.

Cosplay has actually been around forever; we just used to call it “costuming.” But as far as nerdy folks attending conventions of one kind or another? That’s been happening since about 1939 as far as anyone can tell, when a couple went to the first World Science Fiction Convention at the New York World’s Fair dressed in space outfits.

Cosplay” as a term was invented by Japanese journalist Nobuyuki Takahashi in the eighties, reasonably combining “costume” and “play” into “kosupure,” a brilliantly descriptive one-word encapsulation of what he saw going on in the hall at the 1984 Worldcon in Los Angeles. Nowadays cosplay might even be considered by some to be “so mainstream” with reality TV shows like Syfy’s Heroes of Cosplay and Face Off bringing the stupid right into the safety of our own homes.

Yet, the number of people you know who actually cosplay is probably zero to none, and really, it takes a special kind of I-give-zero-Feldons to actually go there.

Italian cosplayer Elise lamghost Porto as Chandra, Flamecaller.

“Being both a cosplayer and a Magic player I always wanted to cosplay something game-related,” says Chandra cosplayer Elise lamghost Porto. “Chandra is my favorite among female Planeswalkers, and probably the most funny to perform. She is exuberant and lively, which definitely gives you more options than staring at the camera with that serious face all the time—I’m talking to you, Jace! Moreover, this makes her very different from myself.”

Sometimes cosplay is simply an escape from the costume you normally wear, 9 to 5, on a day- to-day basis. In other cases, cosplay can be a way to cope with life’s serious challenges. Many cosplayers care deeply about giving back to their communities. Vancouver Island cosplayer Purple Rogue is co-organizer of the inclusivity-focused InCon, a family gaming convention, while Air Bubbles used one of her opportunities as a panelist to discuss Cosplay and Mental Illness at February’s Wizard World Portland.

“I developed this panel because as someone who personally suffers from depression I realized there are many who don’t have the resources that I do,” says Air Bubbles. “I wanted to use this panel as an opportunity to make myself vulnerable, sharing my experiences, while letting people know how and where they can get help. No one should suffer alone!”

By supporting a cosplayer, there’s a great chance you’re enabling good things.

In the zone as an Elf, and in my natural state with the amazing Bennie Smith.

This past November I had the honor of being StarCityGames’ featured cosplayer at Grand Prix Atlanta, which also boasted the Commander Celebration. The cosplay that SCG requested for the event was an Elf modeled after the card art from Seek the Wilds. The idea was for me to match the event playmat.

Doing reconnaissance to determine whether these creatures are friend or foe to Zendikar. #GPAtlanta pic.twitter.com/lbnIPBv1B7

— MJ Scott (@moxymtg) November 14, 2015

Stoked doesn’t begin to describe the feeling of being featured at an event, supported and appreciated on equal footing with people you’ve come to really like and admire. Make no mistake: it’s work—but it’s fun work. I got to meet so many wonderful MTG fans. Their passion and kindness was humbling. And, the SCG staff treated me like family. This is part of the beauty of cosplay: It’s an art that has an inherently social aspect, requiring both a performer and an audience, and it engages both in a mutualistic appreciation of the fandom.

Pro Kuya Joe, a Jace cosplayer since 2010, onstage during a competition in the Philippines. Joe is also an event organizer who often recruits other cosplayers for opportunities.

Cosplay combines elements of several different artistic disciplines, but you can think of it as the ineffably tenacious love child of hardcore crafting and promotional modeling. We all care very deeply about our cosplays, often pouring hundreds of hours and dollars into each costume—not too different from what goes into competitive deckbuilding. We just brew with fabrics and foams and glues instead of cards. The investment, the care, the risk is all the same. After all’s said and done, we take our homebrewed creation out for a spin at some public event and try to give a good performance while hoping for a positive reception.

Jaclyn Foglia (left) as Chandra, with Christine Sprankle as Liliana at GP Las Vegas 2015.

At GP Washington DC you’ll have the opportunity to see not only Christine Sprankle but also newcomer to the GP featured cosplayer scene Jaclyn Foglia. Foglia is an experienced card alterist in addition to being a cosplayer who has appeared on The SCG Tour® and Prereleases with great frequency. I first noticed her costume work via Twitter when she was working on Chandra for Modern Masters Weekend. Foglia’s style, in both her alters and cosplays, is clean and no-nonsense with a touch of whimsy.

If you’ll be attending Grand Prix Washington DC, make sure to take the time to get a picture with the cosplayers who’ve worked hard to enrich the event.

“I’m looking forward to being able to interact with all the Grand Prix players there,” says Foglia, “and seeing people I only get to see at these events.”

Share your photos using the official hashtag #mtgcosplay to help everyone enjoy them. Other things to keep in mind: compliments are always appreciated, but cosplay does not equal consent, so make sure interactions are polite and respectful.

Elspeth (Nikkinikki) and Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker (Rayomnus), engage in a civil game of cards for the fate of the Multiverse.

“Seeing people dressed up floating through the crowds, interacting with players and artists and taking on a character’s persona is super cool! It adds excitement and a unique credibility to an event.

For me as the illustrator it’s the ultimate compliment to have a cosplayer artist invest hours and hours of their time and money to create an MTG costume that I’ve illustrated. It means that someone has put their heart and soul into literally bringing a 2D character to life.

Having cosplayers around stirs up fun at an event, and it has become one of my favorite parts of a signing. What’s not to love?!” —Terese Nielsen

If you’re interested in cosplay, either as an observer or a participant, join the Magic: The Gathering Cosplay group to keep abreast of what people are doing and get advice if you decide to build your own costume. Cosplay is just one way people choose to live a more creative life, but you might be surprised at how enjoyable (and often therapeutic) the craft can be, from designing an overall look to engineering solutions for hard-to-render armor.

Have a killer time at whatever GPs and SCG Tour® events you attend this year. I hope this article has given you a little deeper insight into the art of cosplay and the Planeswalkers who bring it to life. And remember—whether your dreams lie in Magic or elsewhere, pursue what you want out of life with dauntless passion.

When it comes to success and happiness, you can do nothing smarter than resolve to be stupid.

Liliana by Moxy Cosplay and Air Bubbles. Chain Veil by Vronos. Photo editing by James Arnold.

Though I’ll admit a few backup demon pacts don’t hurt.

Until we meet again: greatness at any cost, as long as you’re not doing any harm. Make your life’s banquet nutritious and delicious, my friends.