Coldsnap Holistic Art Review
By edgecrusher on August 3rd, 2006 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
Welcome to the Coldsnap Art Review, with a TWIST!
Of lemon and ice.
Or maybe not.
Actually the twist is the spin I'm taking on it. I've always felt that people miss the point with Magic art reviews. Cards in magic are meant to be a complete article, not a collection of individual bits. If the art doesn't match the card, then it makes the whole thing fall apart, in my opinon. Essentially, then, this review is reviewing the choices made by R & D or whoever it is that puts pictures to cards as much as it is giving opinions on the quality of the actual art itself.
I'm hoping, after the horrendously hostile response the last art review received that this one will feel a) a little more objective and b) more explicable, and lead to more consensus.
Heh. Fat chance. I did try to get a couple of artistically minded friends to give me some precise technical feedback, and both of them said the same thing: "The picture's too small, I can't make out any details."
Basically, without the cards in my hand, they said they can't give me any meaningful feedback on the art's technical proficiency, so I'm left with a few problems on the technical side.
Anyway, on to the cards, since none of us want to be here forever!
TIER 1: FROZEN SOLID
Most cards wish they were this cool
1. Dark Depths: One of the most well constructed cards in Magic's entire history. So there. Why do I say that? First, and very importantly, the art is amazing. The composition is perfect, using angle and the careful colour tones to throw the creature into peculiarly revealing darkness. At the same time, the contrasting shadows make it clear that we're seeing only a fraction of this monster's bulk, and the tentacles peeking through the ice also suggest that the ice is not going to hold it forever. I first mistook the second tentacle to be a person, as did one of my friends until the other pointed out it led off underneath the ice, which kind of underlines the problems on the technical side of analysis. Nonetheless, and while I think the menace would be increased with some unwitting fool walking over the ice above, there's a palpable sense of impending disaster all around the art here, and it goes to show that sometimes the threat is far more effective than the reality. Compare to Jokulmorder for an important difference in tonal and mood quality. The name is perfectly fitting, for obvious reasons (it's all about what lurks in 'the dark depths' and the fact its coming to get you), and the mechanic is so perfectly fitting it's almost sublime. Pay mana, and over a series of turns the ice holding back the creature melts away until it finally bursts free and you're facing down a really, really scary monster... until it gets repealed. Methinks a blue deck with counter support
2. Phyrexian Etchings:
Even their writings are lethal An easy number two, this one. The name here is better even than Dark Depths in terms of flavour, though mostly due to the amount of in-game support for the nature of the Phyrexians; that being nothing comes for free, especially knowledge. Here we see an explorer, isolated from the world, clearly having gone to great trouble to reach a pinnacle from which they will find it very hard indeed to get off without danger; but a pinnacle that can yield great reward at the same time. How much more appropriate could the art possible be? You play the card and you're faced with the immediate swell of power and card advantage, but the moment you decide you've had enough you get burnt for it. We all know that Phyrexian devices don't get used... they use you. Though of course its not an artifact, but you get the idea. The great V-split of the chasm and the mournfully weak light creeping in from above all help to make this chilly place seem forboding and lost, but of course our intrepid traveler is oblivious. What will happen? We'll find out if anyone plays the damn card in standard, won't we? So: No. 2 because it gets over so very well the tainted yet addictive nature of black card drawing in terms of mechanic and artistic combination. Hopefully by now you get what this review's angle is all about.
TIER 2: CHILLED
Ohran Yeti: The Ohran Yeti was a surprise for me. I was expecting it to be phenomenally boring. But lo and behold, it's not! The p/t is certainly appropriate, on a creature that looks ready to kill something and looks more than able to do it. As a plus its more than clear where the first strike is coming from, and the flavour text is brilliantly fitting. It's very reminiscent of classic descriptions of Polar Bears by Eskimos, and ironically makes this look like a much better 'stalker' than the piss-poor 'stalking' yeti I'll be looking at later.
Braid of Fire: A strong card, definitely, perfectly representing the slow build up of a great deal of devastating power. The 'shockwave' running through the snow and the fact this meditation is going on over open coals helps add to the impression. The name is a little off as far as I'm aware (I don't really know any definitions of 'braid' that apply here), but otherwise it all ties together perfectly. I believe Seething Song remains the best art and flavour combo for mana out of any colour, personally. But that isn't in this set so it isn't getting reviewed. Funny how that happens.
TIER 3: LOOKING A BIT RUNNY
Ronom Hulk: This is very much an example of what a big green creature should look like. Bursting up from the ice (which it is immune to and therefore can't protect against it), scattering everyone around it, it's snarling, angry and it's quite obvious that once it's completed its dramatic exit there's going to be some eating to be had. It's also distinctive, much better than the 'look, it's a creature' kind of art that is far too common in Magic. The only reason this isn't a tier up is because there's no real logic behind or effort to explain cumulative upkeep. The obvious explanation of course is that creatures freeze to death; but how does that make sense on a creature with protection from snow?
Vanish into Memory: This poor, poor card. Vanish Into Memory is in some ways a great result. It's the YMAC card, and having the fans doing all of this is obviously a recipe for disaster. However, it's actually turned out pretty well. The mechanic is so weird that representing it is very difficult indeed. The name, however, is fabulous and the flavour text, while not, is very fitting. The girl is clearly the one doing the magicing, making it even more awkward. You'd think she would be the one that was getting magiced, from the text. This is tiered good because the art is superb and most of the card fits together. It'd only be so-so without it. As it is the mixing of colour and composition is arresting, and the transition effect on her flowing hair is excellent. It's a very imaginative piece and far outstrips the majority of magic art.
Lovisa ColdEyes: This is good, but I feel like I'm maybe being too kind. The art is
Grrrr, I r an Nordic Warlord pretty cluttered, and it makes no effort to play into her abilities whatsoever. She's not leading anyone, she's just sitting on a throne. Speaking of which, the picture really looks like the artist was asked to depict a Nordic Lord and so proceeded to put in every single item they could think of that might be appropriate into the picture. I find something very jarring about that goblet on the arm of her chair, perilously close to the axe on her lap. What the hell's she got an axe in her lap for? The flavour text is good, but it further points out the difference between mechanic, flavour, and art. This woman desperately needed to take a page out of Godo, Bandit Warlord's book, who looks far more interesting, dangerous and is quite clearly LEADING, as befits his position. The image of Lovisa, standing clearly at the lead of an army, striding over the frozen wastes would have been much more fitting and made for much better art, too. I really don't like the horrible habit of Magic art, and especially legend art, just showing a face-on image of the legend in question. Legend art should be as flavourful and imaginative, and evocative, as possible. This isn't. Actually, I AM being too kind.
Adarkar Valkyrie: Angel art is usually good. Serra Angel (9th) is one of the best bits of art ever. Angels almost always get hard work put into them and have something to offer. Pristine Angel is another one that's good. Well, here, this angel is streaking to the offense. She's a white finisher, and you can easily believe it. The angle is original and very effective, with white eyes blazing and wings outspread. There's no real link to her ability, unfortunately, and the flavour text is linked just to that, but overall it's still a great card. It's in this position mostly on the art, like Vanish into Memory.
Deepfire Elemental: The art is okay, and certainly has some very nice and complex fire tones put to work; the pose of the creature and the angle are all good stuff. The name is alright. The effect makes perfect sense, and certainly is believable looking at the creature it's attached to. But what in the name of all the cursed hells is up with the flavour text? Don't get me wrong, fundamentally there's nothing wrong with it. Sek'Kuar gets a bit of character here. But is it just me or should this be flavour text on a land? This Elemental is a CREATURE, it's NOT a place. The flavour text says nothing whatsoever about the Elemental's purpose, place or existence in Coldsnap, other than there's hot bits underground where it came from. Whoopee.
Arcum Dagsson: This is a much better example of what a legend should look like. The flavour text is excellent, Arcum himself is cool, and the ability is surprisingly well reflected, as he's quite clearly taking out an artifact creature. Not remaking it, but the rest adds up perfectly.
TIER 4: BOBBING IN SOMEONE'S DRINK
Rimewind Taskmage: Great flavour text, but it doesn't seem to fit in with what he actually does. The art is considerably better than Heidar's, but the whole package is distinctly lacking.
Karplusan Wolverine: Can you say 'ouch'? Unless I'm mistaken this thing's Mogg Fanatic version 2, not as good but still pretty good. Anyway, that's not what we're here to talk about. The art is SO bog standard for Magic cards. It isn't very adventurous, and the weird shading and colours make it seem more reminiscent of a spirit than a beast, which is really very strange.
White Shield Crusader: and Stromgald Crusader. Both of these cards are incredibly boring. The art isn't bad. Lines are good, colours are fitting for what they are, you can see how they fly and all the rest of it. The Stromgald is the superior card, in my opinion, due to the art being a lot more interesting (more stuff in it) and the pose being a lot less stereotypical; there's just something irking about the white card's pose. It reminds me of Serra Angel too much.
Haakon, Stromgald Scourge:
Hi, mom! AH! DISASTER! What the hell is going on here? WHY IS HE LOOKING AT US? It looks like he's standing around to take a bleedin' holiday photo, not menacing or 'scourging' anything! GRRRRRR! I don't approve of legends without flavour text as a rule. They really should always have it, although here the rules make it nigh-impossible. However, there's no effort at all taken to represent his ability, and the flavour is spectacularly off. Surely he should be walking TOWARDS that building, which I guess is meant to be Stromglad itself? It's all wrong, in my opinion. He's doing nothing, he's static. Okay, he's taking what appears to be a vague step towards us. Still, not good at all.
Blizzard Specter: Okay. Wizards comes ever closer to being sued for blatantly ripping off the ringwraiths with this not-quite flappy thing from Lord of the Rings. Specters are an odd type in Magic. They really don't demonstrate anything flavour-wise, certainly not their own ability, I can't think of a single spectre ever that does. But they look so menacing that they get away with it. Unfortunately, this is a holistic art review, and that means mr. Specter falls really low. Heck, he's not even in a blizzard, making that part of the name a little puzzling. They're getting lazy with specters.
TIER 5: SLUSH
Zur the Enchanter:
My pick for least appropriate
Flavour text EVER Another example of flavour text throwing off a card. Here, things are all going fine until you get down there. This guy's wreathed in magic, he's flying, he's got a weird pose going, but everything's adding up. THEN we hit the text. I'm sorry, but he looks NUTS, not like someone who is trying to 'perfect' themselves. The art is quite clearly that of a madman, from the bizarre manner of his legs, the near-rictus grin on his face and the positively freaky way he's holding his staff. All of a sudden the card falls apart completely and starts making no sense whatsoever. This might sound contradictory since I've brushed over other cards like Adarkar Valkyrie for having not-quite fitting flavour text, but my grievance here is that it actively contradicts what we see in the art. From the words I'd think of an old, wise, thoughtful and intelligent type, a hyper-intellectual, the kind of person who is LIKELY to obsess over their own perfection at the sacrifice of everyone else. The art is simply wrong. It doesn't even strike me as right for the mechanics, to be honest, because he looks too chaotic to have a built-in search mechanic which isn't even selfish. All kinds of problems here.
Aurochs Herd: This is totally off. The Aurochs are quite clearly supposed to be aggressive, but they're standing around like they're waiting to get mowed over by a combine harvester. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the art, but they look totally passive when they really shouldn't. There's also something about the way the four Aurochs are positioned which makes me feel a bit subdued. Since when did four creatures constitute a herd? They should have either shown a long shot of a lot of aurochs, or had them in full stampede mode, since that's exactly what the things are supposed to do. Again; boring, unimaginative, doesn't represent the card in anyway or come close to evoking what it does or its role in the game.
Stalking Yeti: ARRRGH! So many problems here. This yeti is not stalking, for one thing. It looks like a beast that's been surprised and is about to go on the aggressive. Stalking is done by hunters. Hunters are subtle until the very last moment. This one is standing up straight, clearly roaring, and its stance suggests its either taken a swipe at or thrown something at someone. It kind of half suggests something, but doesn't do it very well. It has the right p/t imo, but at the same time the art throws the composition off completely. A pity, because this should have been easy to get right. Just awful from a holistic perspective. The art is fine in and of itself.
Surging Dementia: The ripple cards are almost always boring, with no effort made to try and present this interesting mechanic. This one's one of the worst, rehashing a theme of black discard cards that has popped up a dozen times. Compare to Cabal Therapy, which wouldn't get an 'excellent' but is one of the most interesting looks on the discard effect ever. It's imaginative and original and memorable. This is bland, bland, bland. And Wrench Mind did it better.
Heidar, Rimewind Master: Oh, God. Another godawful bit of legend art. Another bit of my soul dies. I wish they'd start treating legends like the special cases they're meant to be. The art here isn't really very good or fitting. Blue is the least 'in your face' colour of them all, and it's hard to tell whether he's supposed to be mad or constipated. Mechanic isn't represented at all, though the flavour text is nice, and in all he's just a really kind of crappy package.
Garza Zol, Plague Queen: BORING. BORING. BORING. The art isn't that good. It's utterly uninspiring in every way (compare, please, to Soul Collector for vampire art done
She stalks the frozen wastes,
seeking the artist guilty of this
One of the best holistic
vamps EVER good and a perfect example of an excellent holistic vampire), no flavour text, no real sense of threat or menace or even an indication that she's anything special at all. Legends should have flavour text in as many cases as Humanly possible; that's the whole point. They're meant to have flavour all of their own. Maybe she could have been saved from slushdom with some decent text. Again, she's 'just there'. Face-on shots are not always very flattering and really don't convey much, in most cases. She looks a bit angry about something; and that's about as far as it goes. Imagine, if you will, that the blizzard were thicker, so that you could see little else, but through it the impression of a monstrous face could be made out. That'd be WAY cooler, and would actually make her seem scary.
Ronom Unicorn: Should be called 'random' unicorn, in my opinion. It's not good, either. It's 'just there' art and really has no meat behind it, just a hodge-podge of mechanics and whatnot. Real lazy stuff.
Martyr of Sands: White one is bad, the art really doesn't make much sense with the rest of it; red one is bad, facial expression on the art is completely blah. Martyr of Ashes See?..... suffers from 'the cycle problem' in general. They all follow a theme (though they resisted the urge to try and have them 'appearing' from the side of the card where their respective colour is), and in general aren't that hot. The Blue one is okay, probably the best, but overall I just find them really uninspiring, even though they're very good cards. There's not even a sense of martyring here, which you'd think would be incredibly easy to achieve. Why does their ability kill them, again? Bleh.
Kjeldoran Outrider: This goes a little wrong from the name downwards. It doesn't fit the rest of the card, the mechanic is all wrong. Outriders are scouts, not defenders. The art is quite nice, though. Ironically, this guy should fetch land, or let you look at someone's hand or something. Scouts really ought to be blue or green creatures, for the most part.
Cover of Winter: Guys in the picture don't seem really aggressive. Since this is supposed to be protecting the person casting the blizzard, they should look like they're trying to attack something. Intead they look like random guys trying to get through a patch of bad weather.
Wrapping up an art review is never easy. It's always tempting to say that previous sets were better or worse, but such a thing is hard to put out with any sense of certainty. Moreover, this is the first time I've done a full art review for a set, using this perspective.
I'd certainly like to do the next few sets in this same format, in order to get a better impression and compare properly between different sets.
But from what I've got here, it's fairly obvious that Coldsnap is mostly in the middling ground. When it's good it's very, very good, but my memories of Kamigawa block tell me that there was more interesting art there, and the heavy use of flavour text gave big points on holistic grounds. I'm not going to declare that the art on the whole is bad, it's certainly not. There's a reason for this.
Many people have commented on the forums that art in Magic is very 'samey' these days. I'd argue that isn't the case, but the style has become more standardized, with emphasis towards computer-generated art. There's a clear trend in Wizards management to find a solid, easy-to-maintain status quo in art quality.
I'm not sure, however, that this is working well for the holistic side of Magic. Legend art in particular seems to have taken a NOSE DIVE in quality since CoK Block, with the majority being the usual face-on nothing shots. There are undeniable gems, and I'm far from negative.
Hopefully you'll find this article interesting and I'll be able to do next set as well, and give a much better and more directed round-up. As it is, I'm willing to say comfortably that it is very unlikely that Dark Depths will be surpassed in a very, very long time.
I r teh winnar!
By edgecrusher on August 3rd, 2006 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now