Saturday, May 13, 2017

What does a Magic art director do?

Last week I learned I’ve been nominated for a Chesley award for Best Art Director… it was a very cool thing to find out, but also a surprise, given that I rarely talk about art directing and most of what I do is relatively invisible unless I'm directly working with you. 

To set the stage, I joined Wizards of the Coast in February 2015. All our work is top secret for a year or more until it’s made public, so run the math on my just-over-2-year career, and you realize that a good chunk of the stuff I've worked on is still necessarily shrouded in mystery. The nature of the job makes it difficult to talk about anything current without being annoyingly vague, and by the time I can talk about something it feels like ancient history to me...

...But in the wake of a Chesley nomination, I felt like breaking the silence and dusting off my lapsed Blogger account. This isn’t a solicitation for votes (the polls close tomorrow and I assume most folks have already voted), but it's a convenient excuse to provide some visibility and insight into what Magic R&D art directors like me do.

Our tiny domain.

I use art directors plural because there are currently four of us in Magic R&D. 

A few years ago it was Jeremy Jarvis doing all of it solo, until veteran Sr. AD Dawn Murin came to the team, then Mark Winters, myself, and most recently Kieran Yanner. Jeremy has since been promoted to Franchise Creative Director and moved desks to a different floor of the building (we miss him) and all his old responsibilities, plus some new responsibilities, have transferred to us. 

We each do slight variations on the same job, so I'll be speaking mainly from my own experiences as a Sr. Art Director.


Magic: The Gathering is an analog card game that requires at least one piece of art for every card, so working with freelance illustrators to make that art is the steady drumbeat behind a Magic art director’s day. 

We work in six week cycles, beginning with reviewing card concepts and collaborating with the creative team writers (who hone the concepts and write the actual words that become the art descriptions) to find the best pictures to fit a card's rules. Each image is crafted to tell the player something about what the card does from its tiny art box across the table, and show off the setting and flavor. Does the card have Flying? The art might need wings... What color is it? If it's a creature, what is its power and toughness? What kind of tokens does this spell make? Is there a specific visual cue tied to a mechanic? 

The art is as much a gameplay communication aid as it is fun to look at, and we consider all of that during commissioning.

Once the concepts are written and formalized into art descriptions, we hand-select from over 150 artists for each assignment, taking into account everything from the individual artist’s style and problem-solving strengths, to their availability, to conversations we’ve had with them about what they're excited about painting.

We follow the assignments through a rigorous feedback process, reviewing incoming sketches and finals constantly. Since the creative team is a highly collaborative organism, we get multiple sets of eyes on the art and synthesize feedback from within our team before reaching out to the artists. Feedback is our tool for making sure each illustration fits the needs of the card, is well-executed, and stays consistent within the context of the setting.

An elegant weapon.

In 2016, I commissioned a total of 578 unique pieces of card art for Magic. 

I don’t think I need to say it, but that is a lot of art. And with 3 of us splitting up the commissioning in 2016, that paints a decent picture of the volume of illustrations that make up a year’s worth of Magic cards.


In the wake of Jeremy leaving the Sr. Art Director role, we stepped up and started doing the worldbuilding that the cards depend on, too. This is one of my favorite parts of the job.

We currently visit two worlds (planes in Magic parlance) per year in our main set block releases. To get a deeper look into what “two worlds a year” means, you should pause reading this and go watch the GDC talk Jeremy did earlier this year on how we do it- for the sake of brevity I won't rehash that speech, but it's really worth a listen if you're interested in our process.

Every world has an art lead, and that role is now traded back and forth between the art directors (Mark art-leads a world, I take the next, and so on). For reference, you'll see the results of the first world I art directed this fall.

After the vision is captured by the team, the lead AD is responsible for art directing the world guide- a giant tome filled with hundreds of environment, character, creature and motif concept illustrations, plus text that gives artists and writers a holistic capture of the world. It's what our art descriptions refer back to often as a means of keeping visual and tonal consistency across a card set when a hundred different hands are touching the final product.

Actual pile of concept art

Along with our in-house concept artists, we bring in illustrators from around the globe for three week events called “concept pushes” to help generate all that concept art. The art lead kicks off the push by making and giving a detailed presentation about the world vision, and we work closely with the artists and whole creative team in reviews throughout. 

We also try to have fun and… you know… make sure they get fed and see outside the building.

Actual artists, actually outside.


3/4 of the current Magic ADs started as card illustrators (including me) and we've been artists on some of those worldbuilding concept pushes ourselves. My biggest contributions as a concept artist were for Kaladesh, our 2016 Fall release. Under Jeremy’s direction at the time, I designed things like aether pipes, some of the filigree* gears that you see throughout the setting, and a significant portion of the look of elves and dwarves on the plane. Here’s a Kaladesh dragon I concepted, and how it relates to finished works of art on cards:

*I make no apologies for the filigree.

ADs still contribute concept art occasionally, when needed outside of the concept pushes.


The most visible part of many ADs’ jobs is scouting for talent at conventions and other events. We’re extremely proud to get to work with some of the best of the best illustrators in the world, and we have no shortage of assignments for new folks who meet our high quality bar and aesthetic. So while it's a big time spend, it’s also a special treat to get to travel, meet artists and review portfolios in person. In 2016 we traveled to SDCC and GenCon, and this June I’m excitedly looking forward to visiting the Illustration Master Class in Amherst, MA as a guest instructor.

I had an awesome visit with NCAD students on Wednesday.


We work directly with folks all over the building, and are always on call to sign off on things or answer questions about art and worldbuilding from Design, Editing, Imaging, Brand, and executives. We like to say we have a culture of collaboration. What that means is, instead of giving handoffs or saying a bunch of words at people and walking away, we sit down around a table with one another. Quite often. 

I thought a visual would help, so I'll let this image abstractly illustrate what my typical meeting schedule looks like:

Rectangle = a week. Blue = meetings.

(In all fairness, these meetings are important and help us get things done).


Apart from the "normal" paces of the job, other things ranging from office-y to specialized tasks come up all the time, and we activate. Some of those things include:

  • Making Powerpoint presentations (with fancy animations and drop shadows and stuff)
  • Hand-fixing oil paintings that were damaged in shipping
  • Documenting our processes & recording meeting notes
  • Writing short essays (or really long emails that have a thesis statement)
  • Playtesting future card sets and giving playtest feedback
  • Picking artists up from the airport
  • Knowing about various printing methods
  • "Paperwork"
  • Remembering our ever-changing placeholder names for things (I am bad at this one.) 


This is less tangible, but important. Magic has a set of standards and an aesthetic range that makes it its own unique thing, and knowing what’s important to capture in our images, worlds, and characters becomes part of our instinctual and emotional makeup as art directors.

Knowing what makes Magic Magic is obviously critical for card art, but it also extends to our IP outside the card game. An example of exercising this muscle was when I recently worked on a Magic skin pack with the folks over at Minecraft and our brand team. I got to be a liaison to their in-house artists and art directors and talk with them about what features of our characters are most important to capture when they’re just a few pixels wide.

New meaning of "block release..."

I’m also a long-standing Minecraft goob, so it was insanely fun to help bridge the gap between two of my biggest nerd-doms. Kudos to the Minecraft team, they did an amazing job.


That's the basics. I omitted a lot for the sake of brevity and confidentiality, but what I hope you take away is that there's more to it than saying 'yes' and 'no' or waving a red pen around- Magic and its art are in the hands of people who care deeply about it. I don’t think any of us would do this job if we weren’t passionate about the art, or collaborating to make the things we make.

I mentioned only a slice of what I've worked on is public, so I’ll finish out this post by celebrating some of my personal favorites among the illustrations I've commissioned so far. You didn't think I was going to leave without sharing art, did you?

Eldritch Moon:
Harmless Offering by Howard Lyon
Voracious Reader by Filip Burburan
Murder by Tyler Jacobson
Peace of Mind by Christopher Moeller
Deploy the Gatewatch by Wes Burt

Conspiracy 2: Take the Crown:
Caller of the Untamed by Iain McCaig (also chosen for the cover of Spectrum 24)
Kaya, Ghost Assassin by Chris Rallis
Queen Marchesa by Kieran Yanner
Jeering Homunculus by Steve Prescott
Daretti, Ingenious Iconoclast by Victor Adame Minguez

Angel of Invention by Volkan Baga
Master Trinketeer by Matt Stewart
Commencement of Ceremonies by Zack Stella
Mox Opal by Chris Rahn

Commander 2016:
Saskia, the Unyielding by Greg Opalinski

Aether Revolt:
Ajani's Aid by Terese Nielsen
Deadeye Harpooner by Ryan Pancoast

Onward (to) Victory by Grzegorz Rutkowski
Prepare (to) Fight by Zack Stella
Glorious End by Raymond Swanland
Island by Richard Wright

Cabal Ritual by Kieran Yanner
Black Lotus by Steven Belledin (see Steve's process for this piece here)

Now get back to work. :)



  1. Very neat read. Overall I really enjoy the final product you guys put out. However I do find that sometimes your art is too consistent, to the point where it is harder than it needs to be to tell creatures apart at a glance. I really miss the diversity of art that magic used to have a decade ago.

    1. I second this comment.
      But you do a wonderful work and there are surely some other sides that I don't see when I "complain" that the art is too consistent.

  2. Congrats! That is well deserved. Art is what got me into Magic in the first place circa 2003, and I have never been disappointed with it! (even if I don't really like some of the cleaner art that looks computer generated we see nowaday, like a lot of eldrazis, most of the art and its direction are major successes)

  3. Nice to get some insights into how it works.

    Contrary to the above, I actually really like the consistency in art for each world. The fact you can sit Titus Lunter card art next to Terese Nielsen's, Clint Clearly's and Nils Hamm's and have it all be clearly connected and consistentwith the world, yet play to (and often exemplify) individual styles is impressive. It is a testament to the hard work that goes into the world building and art direction.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Also, can you guys please commission Nils Hamm to finish off his land cycle? I would love for some islands to match those beautiful mountains. Pretty please?

  4. HI! Really interesting to better understant AD's work on a daily basis. Congrats for the nomination. I have a question for you... I found some people that, like me, find that despite some worl specific elements (like filligree in Kaladesh, Eldrazi physionomy, etc.) overall the recent sets don't have a distinguishing style that can make me say just by looking at the artwork style: Its indeniable, this card is from Shadowmoor. I think that using varied style and often from the same bunch of artist in each set (Raymon Swanland, Tiereise Neilson, Daarken, etc.) contribute to make the overall look/aspect of the sets generic. To illustrate my point better, Amonketh is epgyptian theme inspired. An old civilisation, desert, gold. It has a distinctive palette. Would it have been possible to commission artist in order to have maybe 50-75% of the art in the vintage style of Boris Valleijo, Frank Franzetta, Julie Bell, etc? For me this style would have match the Amonketh flavor and give a distinctive identity to the set (something that I found is lacking since Alara.) Maybe it's just my perspective and opinion. Do you think it could give a better identity to a set to oriented the style of majority of artworks in a direction? Using more cartoonish for this set, speedpainting for this one, classic look, digital, watercolor, etc. Maybe it is not faisible because it would required a huge list of contact to commission and less of them would be currently used for commission.

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  8. Rather like the creature running amok in the books.

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