War of the Spark is now on store shelves, and it brings with it not just a bevy of powerful new planeswalkers, but 11 new-art reprints as well. In the current golden age of Magic art, for which the quality bar is so uniformly high, choosing which version of any given card to put in your deck has become more about personal taste than ever, and these War of the Spark reprints bring exciting new options to the table.
Many of these cards are getting their first-ever reprinting with brand new art, whereas Giant Growth is now on its ninth iteration, making it one of the most re-illustrated cards in the game.
The eternal struggle continues... it’s the Reprint Rumble: War of the Spark!
Classic Genius vs. New Hotness, which battling faction will emerge victorious in this grand contest? The battle has been joined, and now the endgame commences!
I’m a huge fan of the color palette which Sid has chosen for this new illustration, with the way that the bold oranges and yellows seem to make the pridemate jump out from the foreground, and tower over the blue Eternals, which fade away into sky. The posing is also incredibly dynamic, giving a sense of power at the ready.
By contrast, Svetlin’s original, showing two pridemates picking their way through the jungle, feels more muted, and doesn’t carry as many indications of combat -- it almost looks more like it would be more at home on an instant or sorcery spell.
I think that Sid’s new illustration better captures the flavor of one, single creature getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger -- here’s another place where posing and composition pay big dividends, making the pridemate seem as though it is much larger than the Eternals, even though they appear to be roughly equivalent in scale. I do love the original, but I’ll jump on the New Hotness bandwagon, here.
For me, in a choice between two great pieces of art, this one comes down to the title: which of those cards makes me think that I’m seeing an “Augur” of Bolas. I love the composition of Slawomir’s original -- the slightly-menacing juxtaposition of the shadowed figure in front of the crashing waterfall, and the comparatively-subtle placement of the Bolas horns atop the staff.
But it’s Alex Konstad’s new illustration which actually gives the impression of augury, with the crystal-ball-like spell at the center of a whirlwind of motion. The Bolas imagery is more on-the-nose, but, given the story behind War of the Spark, that sort of comes with the program.
This one comes down to a matter of perspective, in more senses of that word than one. The thing I love about Kieran Yanner’s original is Chandra’s palpable emotion: she’s a pyromancer, she’s mad, and she’s coming for you. But something about her actual spell ends up feeling weirdly compressed -- because the fireballs are kept within the image, instead of breaking the card frame, they feel strangely cheated of depth. This is a composition which I think would work really well in 3-D, but which ends up feeling flat here on cardboard.
Whereas in Aleksi’s version, with Chandra leaning back, and her pyrohelix vanishing up and out behind the cardframe, it somehow feels more organic, and less artificial. Plus, that is some beautiful fire, which comes as no surprise from Aleksi. This card is -- quite literally! -- the new hotness.
It's a Scott on Scott battle!
This contest, to me, is a tale of two moods: grit in battle vs. heroic defiance. I love the battle story that Gabor’s new illustration tells -- it’s a wonderful micro-scene from within the much-larger narrative, which gives a powerful sense of the Ravnicans’s struggle against an implacable foe.
By contrast, Anastasia’s original version leaves more to the imagination -- we see a lone soldier, in a pose which carries with it this almost beatific sense of determination (that backlighting -- chills!), but just what sort of enemy our lone soldier faces is left entirely to the viewer’s imagination.
In the end, it’s this deliberate lack of context which creates more of a sense of defiance for me -- Anastasia’s soldier will fight any foe, right to the end.
Demolish, I think, is a tough ask for any artist: it destroys an artifact (which is small), or a land (which is big), so how to capture both in one scene? In the past, it seems, a lot of art directors have attempted to square this circle by focusing more-or-less exclusively on one half of the brief.
Steve Belledin’s Kaladesh gremlin, for example, looks set to ruin some artificer’s day, but I have a hard time picturing it destroying a land. On the opposite end of the spectrum, John Avon’s Demolish would look at home on a Stone Rain, but it’s hard to see it and picture a Shatter. Adam Paquette’s War of the Spark version is a fantastic painting, but -- if I didn’t know which card it was on -- I’d say it looked more like a creature kill spell.
In the end, I think it’s Volkan Baga’s vision of the falling statue which comes closest to capturing both halves of the card in one.
This comparison is so interesting because it’s a literal before-and-after: Jedd Chevrier’s painting from Guilds of Ravnica shows the Gateway Plaza as it used to be, before the Dreadhorde invasion, whereas Sung Choi’s version from War of the Spark shows the exact same location after it has been devastated by the opening of the Planar Bridge.
Both illustrations are wonderful, and I won’t fault anybody for preferring either one. Jedd’s painting is a beautiful, autumnal, urban scene. It is quintessential Ravnica, and it manages to combine both a sense of everyday peace with a looming hint of foreboding, thanks to those portentous falling leaves, and the small, shadowed figures in the foreground.
Whereas Sung Choi’s creation is a master-class in devastation, from the vertiginous downward angle, to the palpable malevolence of the gaping portal, which has torn the Embassy of the Guildpact literally in half. The narrative importance of the War of the Spark version draws me to it, but if I was building, say, a Ravnica-themed Commander deck, I could see myself plumping for the original.
Giant Growth, to me, is all about scale: how to you take something that was once normal-sized, and show that it has become giant?
Oddly enough, given that we have 9 illustrations to choose from, I’m surprised by how many of them don’t really give me this sense. The Ice Age Giant Growth, for example, has literally nothing for scale -- that insect could be any size. And while the mouse in the Alpha art is standing next to some tiny-looking bones, you don’t have any indications that this was a normal-sized mouse which suddenly became a giant -- it could always have just been this size.
In a vacuum, Noah Bradley’s Return to Ravnica art is my favorite of the bunch -- the use of perspective is just so striking. But, again, it just looks to me like a giant casting a shadow, not as though a transformation has occurred.
My concern about using Mowu in the art for War of the Spark is that Mowu already has both a large and a small form he can switch between -- I think of that as Mowu’s ability, so to speak, rather than an external spell you could cast on anything. In the end, I honestly had a hard time making a pick, here -- not because there aren’t multiple great pieces of art, but because none of them exactly hit the mark for me.
Of all 9, I think Matt Cavotta’s Tenth Edition version comes closest. The contrast between the normal bears in the foreground and the giant bear in the background gives me that sense of transformation and scale. And while, at first glance, I think the art almost reads as the foreground druid summoning a giant, spirit bear, as opposed to enlarging a regular bear, the corresponding green glints at the tip of the druid’s staff, and in the giant bear’s eye, gives me enough of a narrative hook to hang my nit-picking hat on and call it a day.
For me, this is the very definition of a pick-’em -- which do you prefer more: a figurative interpretation, or a literal one?
Noah Bradley’s gorgeous Ixalan landscape offers this beautiful panorama of “new horizons” -- we have these majestic dinosaurs in the foreground, backlit by the rising sun, as it illuminates distant vistas just begging to be explored. Whereas Eytan Zana’s illustration for War of the Spark provides a genuinely beautiful metaphor -- we see the remnants of Vitu-Ghazi, largely destroyed in the battle with Bolas, taking root once more.
Here, the “new horizons” are figurative as well as literal -- while much of Ravnica has literally been leveled by war, creating new spaces within the familiar cityscape, even more important are the opportunities for regrowth and resurrection, as symbolized here by Vitu-Ghazi. It’s a powerful message of endurance and hope. The poet in me loves, loves, loves the War of the Spark art.
In the end, here’s something about Bradley’s original which speaks to me as well, and I’d give it the nod for now by the narrowest conceivable margin. (Ask me again tomorrow.)
At the risk of becoming a broken record, this all comes down to scale for me again, and I just think that Svetlin’s new illustration for War of the Spark has the much better scale of the two.
The fleeing Eternals in the foreground really emphasize what a chonky boi this 7/6 wurm is, and, when you can see the very real looks of fear on a murderous zombie’s face, you get the powerful sense that this wurm is not one you’d want to mess with. By contrast, while Yeong-Hao Han’s Dominaria wurm towers over the tiny trees in the foreground, those (presumably gargantuan!) trunks in the background make it much harder to gauge the wurm’s scale.
I’m drawn to the Dominaria art’s green-heavy palette, and obvious nods to nature. This wurm looks properly primordial, like that same sort of big green monster we’ve been loving since Craw Wurm in Alpha, but it’s Svetlin’s depiction of sheer size that ultimately seals the deal for me.
We find ourselves back to figurative versus literal again, and once again it largely comes down to taste. Karl Kopinski’s M12 original is a beautifully-rendered depiction of the aftermath of Sorin literally getting his vampire on -- I love the detail in the victim’s armor, how you can still see the blood dripping down Sorin’s chin, and the sense I get from the posing that Sorin is hiding from the distant light.
Whereas Daarken’s new illustration for War of the Spark is a bit more figurative -- instead of Sorin literally drinking someone’s blood, what we’re seeing here is a different thirst at work: the thirst for vengeance. Sorin is out of his wall, and he’s not happy, and he’s going to make Nahiri pay. The action here is maybe a bit harder to parse -- what exactly is that red miasma which Sorin seems to be drawing from Nahiri? It’s not literally blood, I don’t think, so then what is it?
In the end, it’s the looming statue of Bolas in the background which sells me on this new piece. As much as this word has been overdone, there’s an epicness to this new painting which I can’t help but respect. Two ancient planeswalkers, with a vicious grudge, battling for their lives atop the statue of the Dragon-God? Sounds good to me.
I’m glad to end the Reprint Rumble on this note, because these are two absolutely wonderful pieces of art. It is not an overstatement when I say that Aaron Miller’s reinterpretation of Totally Lost for War of the Spark is one of my very favorite pieces in the set, and this is a set filled with extraordinary art.
Once again, the statue of Bolas provides (say it with me this time!) scale, and the slanted, distant view of Ravnican roofs in the background creates a truly vertiginous sensation of height. With the addition of its wonderful little nod to narrative, I can’t think of a better way to capture the original spirit of Totally Lost without falling into the trap of trying to copy Dave Palumbo’s masterpiece.
Because that’s what Dave Palumbo’s original painting from Gatecrash is: an absolute masterpiece. The way that painting is posed and framed -- with Fblthp cowering at ankle-level amidst a jostling crowd, which seems totally unaware of his presence -- is an absolute master-class in telling story through art, and I don’t think I’m reaching to say that it’s one of the best Magic paintings of this decade.
To be sure, that flavor text helped turn Fblthp into a fan favorite, but I also don’t think that this little homunculus would be back in War of the Spark with a brand new Legendary Creature card to his name if it weren’t for the depth of emotion which comes through in Dave Palumbo’s art, and which left us all with no choice but to root for the little lost soul. Everyone who was ever lost in the mall as a kid recognizes that face, and knows that feeling. We are all Fblthp.
At the end of the Rumble, the OMA score stands at 6-5 in favor of New Hotness, which is as close to a tie as the tyranny of odd numbers will permit. But the final story won’t be told until you’ve cast your vote, and, with art like this to choose from, you can’t go wrong either way.
And, in the end, that’s the essential beauty of new-art reprints -- they give Magic players and art fans more choices to express their personal love of the game through the cards that they choose to play. Every piece of art should be celebrated and appreciated, and every painting is somebody’s favorite. And that’s a great thing.
Each set provides a new chance to tell a story and capture the imagination of the players. Thanks go out to everyone involved in this creative process and I look forward to seeing the contestants for the next Reprint Rumble.
Until next time!
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