Last week I shared some examples where modern-day Magic artwork outshines comparable pieces from the game’s past. While 1993-1994 brought us some of the most iconic and memorable (not to mention powerful) cards in Magic’s history, a bit of the artwork from that time period left much to be desired. There is elegance in simplicity…sometimes. Other times, though, the pieces just fell flat.
This week I want to remain in the past, and talk about another interesting group of Magic cards. Have you ever examined a piece of art and thought to yourself, “I did not expect the card to do this based on its art?” Occasionally, there does appear to be a disconnect between what the card does and what its art depicts—sometimes this is due to a true error, while other times it’s just a bit of awkward art direction (or lack thereof).
This week I want to touch upon six different examples of this disparity, and talk a little about the history (if any is publicly available) that led to the art/card combination.
For those unfamiliar, Alchor’s Tomb is a rare artifact out of Legends—if you were (un)lucky, you may have opened this card in a collector booster of Dominaria United because the card was a part of the Lost Legends set. It’s not particularly valuable despite being rare and on the Reserved List. One glance at the card’s ability, and you’ll quickly understand why.
At four mana to cast and then another two mana to activate, changing the color of a permanent you control doesn’t do it, even if it’s repeatable. What’s the best application for this card? Gradually turning your creatures black one turn at a time to avoid a stray Terror or Dark Banishing that your opponent might draw? Turning your creatures white to pump them up with an Honor of the Pure? No. I just don’t get it.
The most noteworthy thing about this card is the story behind its art. You may be wondering what changing colors has to do with a tomb. The connection isn’t obvious. In fact, it’s altogether erroneous. The card was supposedto be Alchor’s Tome. A book that allowed you to change something’s color seems far more plausible!
According to a post on The Gatherer, “Alchor was a wizard played by Wizards of the Coast co-founder and former president and CEO, Peter Adkinson. The card was supposed to be Alchor’s Tome, a mighty tome of magical spells that such a wizard might use in preparing for battle. Unfortunately, the artist (Jesper Myrfors) mistook “tome” for “tomb” and drew Alchor’s Tomb. Thus, at least in the world of Magic, Peter’s wizard had been killed off.”
Rebecca Guay is one of the greats in Magic art, and Sustaining Spirit is no exception. I love everything about this card’s art, from the detail in the creature’s wings to the seated position she’s taking. The only thing that doesn’t add up is how it’s a Guardian. What kind of a creature type is that?! If anything, shouldn’t it be a Spirit?
Eventually Wizards of the Coast came to their senses, and errata’d this card’s creature type to be an Angel instead of a Guardian. That makes more sense—the figure in the art certainly looks like an Angel, and the ability to keep your life total from falling below one sounds like an angelic ability.
The errata does lead to one anomaly, however. This is an Angel, clearly with wings, that does not fly! In fact, when I run a query in Gatherer for cards with subtype “Angel” that does not include the word “flying” in its rules text, Sustaining Spirit is the only match!
Coincidentally, a second Angel without flying was just recently spoiled: Weeping Angel from the Universes Beyond: Dr. Who series.
I don’t understand either word in this card’s name, but the art is somewhat cute…in a mischievous wild animal sort of way. Richard Thomas did a nice job illustrating what he interpreted as a Lemure.
The only problem is, Richard read “Lemure” and thought of a lemur. These are two very different things! A lemure is a ghost of the restless dead from Roman mythology. A lemur is a primate endemic to Madagascar. I’m sorry, but there’s no way the create furry character in this card’s art is a depiction of the restless dead. While lemurs don’t have wings, I have to imagine the primate is what inspired Richard when he was painting this card.
Thus, the miscommunication leads to a cute furry, flying primate on Hyalopterous Lemure instead of the intended undead figure. Hyalopterous, by the way, literally means “having hyaline or transparent wings, as an insect.” A cute primate with transparent wings? Checks out.
You may be wondering how Force of Will, one of the most powerful, iconic, game-warping card of Magic could have an artwork error. Wouldn’t everyone be talking about it if that were the case?!
Not if the error was more subtle than the others. Terese Nielsen shared the history of this miscommunication on her personal blog. It was the first Magic card she did for Wizards back in 1996, and the art direction she was given was a bit loose, to say the least. In her words, “Back in those days, the art direction and descriptions tended to be a bit looser…and they came over by fax. I wish I still had the original art description, but as far as I can remember, here’s all it said:
Thus, Terese proceeded to paint an intense card featuring a great deal of red color and fire. To her surprise, the final card came out and it was blue instead of red, clashing quite severely with the card’s artwork! Fortunately, the card became so powerful that players were happy to overlook the clashing colors on the card in order to earn an advantage in games of Magic. To this day this card helps players tap out and hold up counter-magic in competitive games of Magic.
I don’t think there’s any specific miscommunication or misplaced art direction on this card. At least, not one that I’m aware of. I still think it’s misleading though, and merits a shout-out in this article.
What’s my complaint about poor old Nylea’s art? Well, in Magic history we’ve learned to associate archers as having one (or both) of two abilities: tapping to do damage to attacking creatures and reach. For example, consider Femeref Archers and Court Archers.
These follow a templating that players are used to. The former taps to do four damage to an attacking creature with flying. The latter has Reach. Archers are designed to use their bows and arrows to stop (or at least hinder) creatures that fly.
Now you have Nylea, a mythic rare, full-blown God, wielding what is arguably a gigantic bow in her artwork, yet she can’t do diddly squat against flyers! Seriously?! This seems like a flavor fail to me. I understand that in the history of the game, there are probably other green creatures with bows and arrows that didn’t have one of the iconic abilities above, but why does the exception have to be a 5/6 God?
I guess technically Elvish Archers is just a 2/1 first strike, Hallar, the Firefletcher can’t tap to do damage or block creatures with flying, and Thornbow Archer also lacks such abilities. Still, I wonder how many players made a game decision assuming Nylea had reach only to find out their opponent’s flyer was able to attack in for lethal.
My discourse on this card’s art will remain brief. I googled “whippoorwill”—it’s a real bird! Apparently this is a medium-sized bird within the nightjar family, from North America. It’s well-known for its song, so much so that the bird was named onomatopoeically after it. That’s pretty neat.
What’s not neat is the fact that Wizards made a bird creature that doesn’t have flying! This isn’t the only bird that doesn’t fly in Magic. Bronzebeak Moa, Darba (a bird beast), Owlbear Cub (a bird bear), and Zodiac Rooster are all birds that don’t fly. Only, you wouldn’t expect bird beasts and bird bears to fly…a whippoorwill on the other hand, you would expect could fly. For those who live in North America, you could look out your window and theoretically see one flying before your very eyes.
Instead, Wizards decided to give the creature a weird ability about not letting other creatures regenerate. I understand that this ability is derived from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, where legend says the whip-poor-will can sense a soul departing and can capture it as it flees. This is all clever and very on-flavor. I’m sure there’s a color-pie reason why, but would it have been too oppressive for the bird to have flying as well?
Over the course of 30 years, the makers of Magic are bound to make a mistake now and then. Those errors can come in all shapes and sizes, but some of my favorites are incongruencies between cards and their artwork.
Ranging from the obvious misunderstanding of lemure vs. lemur, to more subtle inconsistencies such as a popular bird not having flying, these hidden gems are fun to discover and learn about from Magic’s history. These lookbacks are enjoyable to explore in general, and it leaves me to ponder on other similar ideas for future articles. Stay tuned as I dig up some research and learn more about the game’s rich art history.
Magic has a certain aesthetic to it. Set in a fantasy world, the artwork has a kind of cohesion... most of the time. Sig highlights some examples where it absolutely did not.