Yes, it is I, and I am back to review more art bits for you. I can't say this has been easy. With so many cards to look through getting either a representative or even the most fitting cards for each tier was a bit of a chore. You'll all no doubt find horrible art I should have slated or fantastic art I should have praised. But there just isn't room, and I'd rather do a moderately in-depth review of 30 cards than a superficial one of twice that.
For those new to this, I'm not just looking at art quality. Magic art is always high quality, and they have means to make damn sure it is. Well, there are exceptions, but MOST of it is high quality. Haunting Echoes is pretty bad no matter how you look at it.
No, what I'm looking at is how the card fits together. Magic art is more than just a picture. It's a name, a mechanic, a P/T ratio, flavour text and all the rest of it. This art review tries to take all factors of a card into account. There are usually one or two exceptions, where a piece of art is so striking that it gets high regard on that alone. But it's usually only one or two. Overall, I hope this methodology provides a more comprehensible basis for why I judge these cards, and who knows, maybe it'll give you a different outlook on them as well.
Blah blah blah
You're here for card reviews. SO LET'S GET TO IT!!!!
TIER 1: From a Plane like Heaven
Excellent, the way it links to Worship, Serra, the whole concept of Angels in magic is superb, and the light/dark interplay is very effective, particularly the warmth of the light. It's not just bright, there's actual energy to it. Split Second is almost always well represented in these cards, as we see the part-instant where the change from darkness to light occurs. The facial expression on the monster is also very powerful, because in the upper half of the card it looks actually quite scared and is clearly in the process of staggering backward. Maybe it sought to defile the statue? You can see in the lower half that things are pretty degraded, after all. I actually find this to be one of the best ever angel related cards, because instead of simply being flashy and glowy it grounds itself in the slump and decay of the world around it, thanks to that wonderful split second mechanic. Somehow, the explosion of light also makes this uber classic pose so much more effective, in my eyes.
I'm da king o' the mountain.
Holy mother of God. compare with Kilnmouth Dragon for one of several occasions when a change in perspective vastly improves a card. I cannot easily express how blown away I am by this card. In a way I'm cheating. There's no flavour text, Flash makes no sense on this creature in any obvious way. So how can it be up here? Simple. Emotion. Those four words at the start. I look at this card, and I think 'holy mother of God, that is one hell of a dragon'. It's not 'cool', it's not 'neat', it's a towering force of absolute annihilation that quite literally makes every other dragon around it look insignificant, thanks to some clever play on depth. It evokes what it's meant to in such a striking and dynamic manner that I don't feel right posting it anywhere but on the top tier. Magic art gets slated for being basically emotionless most of the time, and that's a fair criticism. But this evoked genuine awe in me. Not sure about the rest of you.
I'm trying to kill the cameraman
for being unflattering!
I'm trying to kill the cameraman
for being unflattering!
My god this is an awesome card. I really do love what this artist has done here. The perspective is beautiful, making the assassin seem looming and deadly, making the gore-drenched hand the emphatic point of the piece. The motion blur of the character is an intriguing view on madness, as the effective system behind it means she's coming into play with astonishing speed. That or he never even saw her, or saw her as a kind of twisted delirium that lingers even after he died. The colours here are well used, the pose dynamic, original and interesting, and in short it's just a great card. Possibly the best assassin card ever. The way she's depicted here would be an excellent motif for the Flash mechanic, too, or some development on it. One of the remarkable things about this is the amount that's going on under the surface. The pose is dynamic in a way which is entirely static. Yay for contradictions, right? Not really. If you look at the way her head's turned, it's fairly obvious she's killed this guy EXTREMELY quickly, and is already turning to look in the direction of a new threat, possibly someone coming to attack her as response to her action. In short, the art actually represents how she's going to be used if anybody plays her. She enters play, kills one creature through her ability, then blocks an incoming attack and hopefully kills that through first strike. It's truly a rarity that art and rules combine so absolutely.
That guy on the floor is me
upon seeing this art
That guy on the floor is me
upon seeing this art
TIER 2: From Ravnica
Academy Ruins: Art is excellent, however. What stopped this from getting into tier 1 is the flavour text. The two clauses don't really fit. The first is flowery and mournful; the second is kind of mundane and unrelated. There are SO many things they could have referred to in the text, so many historical and plot events that could have been pointed to that this bit of text reeks of missed opportunity.
Ancestral Vision: Excellent blend of good art and name gelling together, and my love affair with the key mechanics in this set continues. The idea of a time paradox stripping away the millennial decay from an ancient home is a poignant one, and the very apt representation of card drawing as literal knowledge gained from seeing such a place restored has a poetic value.
Celestial Crusader: The card which could have been tier 1 but wasn't. SUCH good art, among my favourites in the set, but it all comes apart beyond there. There's not that 'it' factor to push it into the truly majestic territory of tier 1, it's ultimately just a pretty picture. With only a little more push around it, this would have worked flawlessly.
Flagstones of Trokair:
Majestic and mournful, you don't need to see the flagstones clearly, as you'd have thought you would have with most people. Instead, you just get lighting and mood work, creating a tableau of beauty lost and grandeur destroyed. This is how you do good lands. Although, admittedly, they usually do good lands these days. I wish they'd apply their 'land thought' to other kinds of card more often, because their land art is almost always good, and almost never lower than tier 3. I don't know anything about Trokair, but I'd guess, like the rest of the plane, that it's a victim of the Phyrexian invasion. I wonder sometimes if it's an easier job to do good lands, because all you have to do is show a tableau, without worrying about putting creatures or people into the set. But that said, people do it all the time. I think it's a strange thing that SO many lands have good to great art (tier 2-3), a vastly higher proportion than any other type. Most of the dual lands from Rav block, for example, are tier 2. It could be that, with a relatively small number of lands per block, people are free to experiment and try new things all the time, or simply because the lands are so different with each block that things refresh, whereas creature types stay largely the same (I don't think it's a coincidence that Mirrodin, which was a proper departure from the norm for creatures, resulted in some of the best creature art ever, IMO). Or perhaps there's just something about drawing terrain that makes an artist's mind dance. Food for thought.
Paradise Plume: Beautiful card supported by very poetic flavour text that follows perfectly. The play of light here is the point, and it plays very well indeed. It's subtle and beautiful, and subtlety deserves respect in an environment glutted with the exact opposite. This, in fact, is the very argument people use in support of Rebecca Guay, that and her pastel tones make a change from compu-art. Contrast is good, basically.
Stonewood Invocation: BOO! An awesome play on perspective, one of the very best Split Second cards in the set. Split second is well represented throughout Time Spiral, actually, but damn this one works. I find it hard to describe exactly what's happening here, but I'm sure you can work it out from the picture, and that's part of what makes it so damn magical. The look on the unicorn's face on the second half helps, too. I would not want to annoy Mr. Horny after that.
The 'Sudden' cycle: EVERY one of these cards is fantastic. Nice plays on composition and angle on Sudden Spoiling, an astonishingly brutal look at a kill spell on Sudden Death, a subtle but fascinating shift effect on Sudden Shock... yeah, these are awesome.
Serra Avenger: Gorgeous art, as angels almost always are. Brilliant bit of work. She's suitably beaten up and brutalised, as you'd expect as one of the last remnants of Serra's destroyed realm. The angle is good but could have been better, and the facial expression doesn't do anything for me. The word 'avenger' suggests passion, and we know from recent angels like Razia, Boros Archangel that angels can get very angry indeed. As it is... well, she just doesn't look very vengeful. Flavour text would have helped this card a lot and I'm surprised there was none. However, the bandages and war-torn look about her really puts this one over for me. The light work in the background just adds another dimension to the piece, though I personally think Razia, Boros Archangel is slightly better.
Thelon of Havenwood: Another example of excellent legend art, and a great holistic package. Here, the abilities aren't represented in the art, but HERE the focus is all on the flavour text. The text, you see, re-emphasises where the camera lies, so to speak. Our attention isn't drawn to the thallids; it's drawn to the waste. Hence it makes perfect thematic sense for Thelon to appear alone, while at the same time the words 'my thallids' make his abilities add up. This card is a perfect example of how proper flavour text can push a piece over the top, because without it this guy would be tier 3. He doesn't reach tier 1 because I still think there's something missing from the art. I can't put my finger on what, but I think it's his pose. Don't get me wrong, this is WAAAAAY better than the art which inevitably sends me off on an amusing rant, but at the same time there's something about it which doesn't click. I wish I could be clearer than that.
TIER 3: From Mercadia...
Ashcoat Bear: It has flash, does it? Doesn't look like it to me. Other than that it's a much meaner take on the usual bear. This bugger looks like it'll rip your walls down and eat you. Then probably look for some porridge with nails in to gargle.
This is perhaps the poster child for my 'stop doing these stupid cop-out face-on shots' rant. The art is fairly average if you look at the bits which make up this guy. It's not all that astonishing. But simply because he's not looking at us, the card suddenly looks about a hundred times more dynamic and arresting. Flavour text is cool, too. More creature art like this would improve magic sets as a whole. Another thing that helps this out to a big degree is the use of background. There's a lot of stuff to see if you look deep into it, and that ties very well into the flavour text, because the further 'back' the picture goes the stronger the impression is that this guy and his horse are in position as the last standing defenders of a nation broken into ruins. As the excellent 'remember the Weatherlight' articles revealed, Benalia was completely demolished by the Phyrexian invasion, and in a way, it’s a pity that we've seen no references to that throughout the cards. For all the throwback flavour this set advances the plotline of Dominaria, and its sad (in my eyes) that the MAGIC boys have decided not to reference past events. I'm a fantasy author, and believe history has a lot of value to a fantasy setting. On a set-by-set basis, I think the Dominarian setting would be improved if they referenced occasionally. If I remember correctly, Odyssey's flavour text had quite a few references, and it greatly improved the flavour of the set and the setting. Double thumbs up, end of rant.
Boring card done well
Boring card done well
Dralnu, Lich Lord: Dralnu, Lord of Cool, more like. What a goddamn POSE! Why the hell can't they do this with legend art more often? WHY? Legend should never be a mere mechanic. It should mean more than that, and this card really does show this. Why not higher than tier 3? Well, there's no flavour text, which I don't like, and the mechanic doesn't carry through. Looking at him, I can't really say that he makes me think 'hey, that's a lich'. If you take away the words 'Lich Lord' and put in 'Postal Worker' instead you get a far funnier, but just as relevant to the art bit of descriptor text. That's not good.
Errant Doomsayers: Great depiction, here. Dynamic, as you'd expect from someone who rants for a living, but the real kick here is the background work. The way the other Doomsayers fade is a beauty to behold, with the one furthest back looking almost ghostly, a mournful figure giving some of the darker emotion a little resonance in the piece. Looking at the creature type, it's obvious that they heard in advance that Lin-Sivvi wasn't going to be reprinted and gave up on life.
Firemaw Kavu: Great pose. He looks like he's just finished toasting one opponent, and he's turning to have dessert on your chargrilled face. It's simple, and it's effective, and completely captures the feel of the card, in my opinion.
Knight of the Holy Nimbus: I like the pose, and the design really is very different. However, I have to say I find it off-putting. I mean... is it just me or does this guy look like a wraith? He's a damn weird knight. The use of lighting here is very good, actually, and the weird appearance somehow adds to the ghostly feel of the piece, which I think fits for a seemingly unkillable creature. Maybe he is a wraith? This might have been tier 2 with some good flavour text and a slightly less weird picture.
Mindstab: A confusing, and chilling, go at discard. The fearful look on the man's face as we crawls away, seemingly from an enemy, only for that enemy to reach through time itself to strip away his memories, is a strong one. I can't help but imagine how this poor sap is going to feel when the rift closes, leaving him cold and alone in an unfamiliar place, unable to even remember how he got there. Proof that there's still more you can do with ancient themes if you only try to. The longer you look at the card, however, the more confusing it becomes, which is why it's down here in Tier 3. I think I have the right ambience the artist was going for, but if they hadn't gone for such a freaky back image and instead simply done a silhouette of an enemy stabbing through the portal this would probably have been Tier 2. Flavour text would have helped.
Pentarch Paladin: This is a victory of pose and original design. Swathed in bandages, horse's mane in ponytails, this guy is a total original wild child and deserves proper respect. He looks impressive, remarkable. But something about him doesn't make me think tier 2. There's not much 'oomph' on a card whose abilities suggest he should have some. But the fact that this beaten wreck is what passes for a paladin these days says something about the state of Dominaria, don't you think?
Plunder: What I like about this card is the look of surprise on the smashing person's face. It's like they've started appearing in mid-swing and all of a sudden they're looking around and thinking 'wha fu?' It's different to the normal kind of art, and very effective because of it, and evokes a wonderful sense of disconnection and confusing that runs through much of the art and flavour text in this set.
Sprite Noble: This I like. It's mechanically unrepresentative, but it's a beautiful re-examination of what faeries are that works very well. Rather than the Guay approach of super-floaty, this one looks fierce, passionate, and indeed noble. For those who don't know, that's actually hat faeries are meant to be. The idea of faeries as forces of light and goodness was an attempt to make the Celtic mythos less inhuman and terrifying. This card goes closer to those (much cooler and more interesting) roots, and I approve of that.
TIER 4: From down the pub...
I am cooler than everything
the new counterspell. New and boring. Boring text, throwback flavour, simple name, uninspiring art. I guess it's to be expected, but you know, counterspell had some good art as well. As it is, it is in the tragic position of being compared with Last Word, an old card which is still my favourite counterspell of all time for holistic brilliance. THAT, my friends, is how to bitch slap somebody. THAT is the essence of blue. How can you not want to be like the guy in that art? That's why I'd rate Last Word as a tier 1 card if I could, and every counterspell I look at has to fight against it for recognition. Cancel's just very blah. The look of confusion on the guy's face is alright, and it's all very neat and tidy, but it's really got no punch and there's nothing at all arresting about it. In no card is that a good thing.
I am lame
I am lame
Cavalry Master: You know what this guy's shouting? "Quick, quick, dive into shot before the picture's taken so I don't look like such a clown!" This guy needs friends, desperately needs a wide-shot bit of art. Poor Cavalry Master. Got no friends. Lack of flavour text only further damns the poor soul. The holistic gerbils do not approve of flavour text that has lots of bearing on the mechanic but none on the art.
Evil Eye of Urborg: 'Wait. Must... be cautious... similarities to Beholder... evident...' that was the original flavour text, just so you know. The second version of the flavour text was an attempt to characterize the Evil Eye's emotional state as seen in the artwork. The text was simply the letters 'OMFG'. Kidding aside, this is face-on, crappy creature art that almost works. The Eye's looking off to one side, and it's clear it is because it's eye is so bloody big, helping to create mystery, and it's subdued colours go well with the darkness all around it.
Tromp the Domains: "Hi, I'm the art that should have been on that awful Aurochs Herd card last set, but unfortunately they used it here, which doesn't quite work as well due to a slightly awkward mechanic and the fact that I'm now a pump spell despite it not making that much sense." Flawed, if dramatic. I simply don't understand how this art could have been put on this card and not the Herd. It baffles the imagination.
TIER 5: From Basingstoke
Assembly-Worker: Jesus H. P. Lovechrist, sometimes you get the feeling these people look for ways to screw up the obvious. This guy looks like an attempt to mechanise some philosopher, not the Dominarian equivalent of a Ford construction line button pusher. WHY IN THE BLUEST OF BLUE HELLS IS HE LOOKING AT US? WHY??? I went crazy on Haakon the holiday maker over this, and here it's actually angering. He's a frickin' ROBOT. Why isn't he depicted doing what he was told to do, like his flavour text says? Just a picture of him pulling a lever. At the basest, most spiritual level, that is what this card should have been.
Evangelize: Evangelize. To preach to. To convert. Not 'shoot with my orbital mind control ray'. Aside from that, there's something about his pose which makes me laugh and just adds to the completely ludicrous, national lottery-esque 'it's you' feeling to this card. Awful, awful, awful.
Kaervek the Merciless: Jeez, how little effort can you take to promote a guy's flavour? So let's see, we get what is little better than the awful 'face-on' shot, a great quote about how nothing will walk with him, and him apparently charging up for a hadoken? Thaaaaaaanks. This guy needed a long shot showing him walking alone, standing alone, whatever, and preferably somebody killing themselves trying to get to him or having their magic explode just by being near him. This is an absolutely awful bit of legend art, holistically speaking.
Lim-Dul the Necromancer: How... ... disappointing. Lim-Dul, one of the most mentioned characters around, finally depicted as a vaguely grumpy looking guy with one evil eye. The ability is spectacularly unrelated, not even attempted to be represented. It's just not very good. Face-on shots generally don't work. They just don't. I can barely think of the face-on card that wouldn't be improved by it not being.
Plated Pegasus: Seven different varieties of just-there blah art.
I used to be a Guay fan.
Honest. But I've lost faith
Bleurgh. Unemotive, uninteresting, unoriginal. The absolute definition of art we don't need anymore. It's a shame, because Guay's style has all kinds of potential, and in the past has produced astonishingly vivid pieces like Gaea's Blessing. But this is just terrible. Vomit-inducing colours, too. What in the hell is up with those pastel-coloured trees??? I'd like to take some time out to expand on my anti-Guay stance. It's an eternal argument in MAGIC sets, and by golly I get the feeling I'm going to inspire it every time I do one of these reviews. I used to love Guay's art, I think you have to lack a soul not to find Gaea's Blessing to be a beautiful, beautiful piece of art (Tier 2, for those counting. It's not a very holistic piece). However, her recent stuff is stomach-churningly turgid. Her Greenseeker from this set as well, is another one that I want to rant about. The motion in the piece is completely FUBAR. There's far too much movement on the shawl and not enough in the body. Guay's tropes are really getting on my nerves. The best comparison is to Ron Spencer who, as everyone knows, likes his chicks/men/anything to be ripped as hell. However, I still see new things out of him. I can't think of a single Guay piece I've seen in about five years that has made me think 'Wow, that's totally different'. She's like an artist who knows her fan base and just cannot be bothered to try anymore. She can churn out the same stuff set after set, and the same people will be pleased to see same old, same old time and again. To me, as an artist in a completely different field, that is unforgivable.
Compare these two. Go on.
They're not in the same league
Compare these two. Go on.
They're not in the same league
D-SK: "Hi, I'm a Deep-Sea creature. Only I'm depicted on land. It's *laughs* all in the name, see? And the cool flavour text, I'm awesome, right? Only... um... well, there's no actual WATER in my depiction, either. I'm still a Kraken, though!"
Even though I bought a playset...
Even though I bought a playset...
ME: "So, you're kind of like a... Dry-Land Kraken, then? Even with a great depiction of suspend, that's retarded. Bye!"
I think Time Spiral marks a slight downstep from Coldsnap, overall. My reasoning is simple enough. Time Spiral is a much bigger set, but unlike the tier 3 and lower cards I've included EVERY card I found worthy of being Tier 1 and 2. That I found so few is not a good sign.
I did have a good look through the set, and in my opinion the majority of cards are average, which is to be expected, but I went in hoping that there would be ten or twenty tier 2 cards from which I would have to pick. I really didn't find that. So overall, I'd have to rate Time Spiral's art as, indeed, average, while I believe Cold Snap was elevated above that due to the comparatively higher proportion of grade A material. And Dark Depths, which is so good that it's almost worth two tier 1 slots.
Stylistically, however, there is a promising trend. More so than previous sets I believe Time Spiral shows a diversion from the dreaded 'face-on' shots against which I am a relentless campaigner. There's still far too many of them, and some (such as Lim-Dul) are absolutely scandalous, but there's a strong promise of good things in the future. In addition there's some nice new approaches to tired old themes, in cards like Knight of the holy nimbus and Serra Avenger, which is truly pleasing to see.
Also pleasant is how the new mechanics work in a holistic sense. Suspend and Split Second are probably the two best holistic mechanics EVER, I can't think of many cards bearing these mechanics that reflected them badly. In fact both have produced some unique and quite sterling artwork. Flash is a nothing mechanic in terms of art, nary a card in sight that makes effort to reflect it, but it's nice to see 'can be played as an instant' keyworded after all this time.
I'll admit this art review feels inadequate. 30 cards from a 300+ set (Timeshifteds not included) is really not much, but never mind. If this goes down well I'll probably be around to do the next two sets, when I should be able to make some better stylistic comparisons and possibly discuss mood shifts (if there are any).
As it is, if there's a one word sum up of Time Spiral's art, it is this: Jarring.
There's a running theme of things happening that are inexplicable, grandiose and frightening, Sudden Death in particular having chilling ramifications. Coldsnap pushed for desolation and disaster, Time Spiral emphasises a feeling of the world spinning out of control and nobody really knowing why, and having little to no control over the process. It isn't so much that the world is dying, it's that nobody knows what's happening anymore. This is represented well in the art as a whole, with strong undertones of loss and mourning as different races and former inhabitants see what has become of the world they left behind. Some mages take advantage of the instabilities, most people just stumble on and hope their very reality doesn't implode on them.
Stupid Teferi. Urza DID warn him, didn't he?
Until next time, from your hero and mine, the Raineman.