What It's Like Helping Shape the Artistic Worlds of Magic: The Gathering

See the Brightsteel Colossus come to life.
Gif: Wayne Reynolds/Wizards of the Coast

Over decades of card sets, Magic: The Gathering has fleshed out whole universes and elemental planes of truly magical beings, creatures, and landscapes. It does it with rules, it does it with funny flavor text, but above all Magic sells its mystical realms with its gorgeous art.

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With the latest drafting set, Double Masters, out this month, io9 spoke to art director Tom Jenkot via email about what it’s like designing the aesthetics of a whole Magic: The Gathering set from the ground up, the challenges of revisiting iconic artwork for re-releases, and the process behind not just the artwork on the cards itself, but broadening the designs of Magic cards over the years. Check out the full interview below, as well as an exclusive look at some of the concept work and art from Double Masters!

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James Whitbrook, io9: Just for fans who are perhaps more familiar with the intricate rules of MTG than the day to day at Wizards, tell us a little about what you do in your role as art director on the Magic team.

Tom Jenkot: I work on all the Booster Fun [the initiative to promote fans collecting and opening Magic booster packs with special promo cards and alternate artwork], like the Box Toppers in Double Masters, and all the Secret Lair Drop releases. It’s an amazing job, I love it, and I’m never leaving it. I work with a ton of talented people full of ideas that make Magic amazing. That sounds like a line, but these people are smart. And they love Magic, so it’s always invigorating to try to make the coolest thing, knowing you just made a pretty darn cool thing last week.

I work with these smarties and dream up more things than we could ever make. I pitch those things, see what sticks, and then find artists that are going to do the best job with those ideas.

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io9: Whether it’s a re-release set like Double Masters or an entirely new release like the recent arrival of Core 2021, what do the earliest steps of that process look like for you and the art team? What details are you given from the design team to begin ideating with, what are the first steps for mapping out the aesthetic of a Magic set?

Jenkot: Most of the early work is done in prep—researching different concepts that align with the set, creating top lines, pitching those top lines, art style research, frame concepts, and artist outreach. There is a lot of work that goes into a project before commissioning. If I’ve done my job well, the artist knows exactly what’s expected and can have fun with the project.

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We work closely with the game designers early on and glean ideas from those talks that translate well visually. While the game designers are in the midst of working on the set, we ask them to tell us about the cool things that they are putting into it and some surprises that are solidifying nicely. Combining that info with the visually rich world guides gives us good targets for Booster Fun.

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io9: One thing that Magic’s variant cards have gotten into more in recent years is borderless variants. Can you speak on what the process is like in deciding which art will be used in a borderless variant or not? How does the team approach making new artwork for a set with the existence of potential variants like this in mind?

Jenkot: Those borderless cards are gorgeous. We’ll do borderless in some very cool ways on future projects that I can’t speak about yet—even though I want to. The cards are chosen a couple of ways. We always want to make cards players will put in their decks. We usually choose Planeswalkers because of how cool they are. For other Booster Fun treatments like the Throne of Eldraine Storybook Cards, we picked all the Adventure cards; we picked big monsters for Ikoria, and so on.

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While we’re working with the Game Designers, we’re both running towards solutions for our separate challenges. At some point, it’s pencils down, decision time, and we sit down to match the visually creative pieces with the cool card designs. That’s an oversimplification, for sure. You can see this in Double Masters’ Booster Fun–those are the cards I want in my decks.

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io9: Talking about Double Masters specifically, you’re going back to cards that have already existed and creating new art for them. When you’re revisiting not just old cards but their art as well, is the process different compared to designing an entirely new card for the game?

Jenkot: Oh, for sure it’s different! You have the original art to contend with. Do we call back to it? Use the same concept? Or go another, albeit just as great direction? The correct answer is a little of both. Themes are cleaner but strict themes will have you painted into a corner quickly. In the case of Double Masters specifically, it was a mildly terrifying challenge to essentially compete with some of the original iconic art pieces.

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A great example of this is Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I chose to use the original here for the Booster Fun as I just couldn’t see outdoing Jason Chan’s version. Plus, I didn’t want to. I wanted to see that card borderless since it hadn’t been yet. I saw my chance and took it! The illustrations owe a lot to how close art directors work with the concept writers. For Double Masters, the concept writer was Emily Teng. One of the first ideas we worked on was the Uza panorama. The Excalibur theme for the five swords was an amazing idea, that started with Adam Willson from my old team at Wizards. Emily and I ran with that idea and I really love the new direction for the swords.

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io9: When designing a re-release’s art, how much are you mindful of contrast between wanting to do pieces that are evocative of the original artwork, and approaching the card’s fantasy from a new angle instead?

Jenkot: This is something that came up a lot. The artists were highly aware of the other versions. These are big cards! When I talked to each of them, they wanted to know how close they should follow those originals. There were things we wanted to pay attention to, like the double blades on the [Sword cards, like Sword of Feast and Famine above], but I really wanted the artists to take the art descriptions and do their own thing. The end result always turns out better when everyone is invested and making choices in a project.

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io9: With sets like Double Masters in the works, do you ever have long time Magic artists ask to pitch a design for the re-release of a card they worked on previously? Or have you gone and sought out artists to ask them to provide something for the update? What are the challenges specifically in trying to navigate how to approach that sort of relationship between the card and its artist?

Jenkot: We ask artists to reprise their past work all the time, although not usually a straight redo. There is something so charming about it. It usually occurs when a card either comes back, gets a mechanical upgrade, or we reference that card somehow. For instance, I was thinking about having Mark Zug do all five swords originally since he had done the original two (Sword of Fire and Ice, and Sword of Light and Shadow). I don’t recall why it didn’t happen, maybe just too many cards in the amount of time! But I’m honestly glad that first idea didn’t work out, because Zug did incredible things in the set and the swords turned out amazing with the five different artists.

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io9: Do you have a Magic set you’ve worked on as an art director you’re proudest of?

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Jenkot: This is the set I’m proud of! Well, the set that’s released so far. I’m pretty new to the team—came from an 11-year run in the creative marketing team just last summer. Double Masters was my first big project. I’m certainly proud of the things that are wrapping right now and of course all the Secret Lair Drops. I can’t wait for everyone to see all the things!


The Double Masters set is available now, in both Magic Online and the physical Magic: The Gathering game.

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James is a News Editor at io9. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!

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DISCUSSION

kingofdoma
KingOfDoma

I’m glad Tom is so fulfilled in his work. It always comes through in his work. ... though that Karn got quite the memeing on Tumblr...