Reviewing the Art of Alpha: 1 Set, 25 Artists, 302 Illustrations
Alpha. Beta. Unlimited. Although these terms are not completely interchangeable, they do mean incredibly similar things to Magic players.
Whether “Alpha,” “Beta,” and “Unlimited” means something historical, financial, or powerful to you, the one thing that everybody can agree on is that these words refer to the very first set of Magic: The Gathering. It’s the set that started absolutely everything we know and recognize today. Let’s just call it “Alpha.”
Everybody consciously acknowledges the power level and monetary value of cards from Alpha. Cards such as Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall, and Time Walk are legendary to all Magic players. They fetch hundreds or even thousands of dollars. They do some of the most degenerate things that players have ever seen.
Fans of Magic’s artwork think of Alpha in a slightly different sense, though. They think of it as the time when the artists of Magic had nearly complete artistic freedom. It was a time that Magic was so devoid of focused art direction, that literally anything was fair game in terms of what could be illustrated on a card. It was a time that, well, stick with me on this one, but… it was a time that nobody even knew what a Magic card was.
Think about it. When the original 25 artists were commissioned to create the collection of artwork that would represent Alpha, there were no Magic cards in existence. Not a single one had been printed. The artists had no frame of reference for what a card would look like, let alone any game mechanics or concepts. They didn’t even know how their art would reproduce or in what context it would be placed in. This is one of the driving factors for what makes the artwork of Alpha so interesting. Each artist was basically given the name of the card and nothing more.
The original 25 artists chose pieces from a list of 302 “names.” If somebody asked you to depict an illustration of “Jump,” what would you do? How about “Ancestral Recall?” “Balance?” “Fear?” “Karma?” “Time Walk?” “Stasis?” “Icy Manipulator?” “Howling Mine?” “Swords To Plowshares?” “Feedback?” “Beserk?” “Kudzu?” How about “Nightmare?” Melissa Benson put a fun spin on her selection of “Nightmare.” She made a scary horse. Get it? A horse. A mare. A Nightmare. Another artist likely would’ve taken this in an entirely different direction when given complete freedom to explore the word. (Imagine what Anson Maddocks might have done.)
Take a look at your favorite artwork from Alpha. It’s fun to think that the artist was inspired by just one or two written words.
The original art director for the game, Jesper Myrfors, told the artists that he wanted the images to simple and iconic. He wanted them to be easily identifiable and to be able to be read from across a room. The Vintage players of today do not confuse popular playables such as Sol Ring, Fastbond, Underground Sea, Demonic Tutor, and Tropical Island with other cards for even a moment. They don’t even need to look or think twice before they realize which card is being played. They are all brilliantly iconic. This quality only has a positive effect during game-play.
Alpha truly was the only set to explore the concept of “anything goes.” Every other set had some form of direction or theme, even if they were just to tiny degrees. There was no theme or style guide for Alpha. It was just “Magic: The Gathering” at that point. There was no certainty that the game would prosper and go on from that initial printing. Other early sets such as Arabian Nights, The Dark, Ice Age, and Legends may have shared a lot of the same freedom in art direction, but the artists still had underlying themes to go by, along with the backbone of previous concepts, illustrations, and knowledge. Alpha was the Wild West. No laws, baby.
In my last article, I shared my Reverent Mantra painting by Rebecca Guay. Even in 1999, just six years into the game’s history, a lot had changed in terms of art direction. Artists still had their own touch, but not without a lot of information and direction being given to them. They had style guides to use for reference, whether it was for depicting a certain place, race, person, event, or type of clothing, Magic was already becoming more visually focused.
This is the “artist assignment sheet” for Reverent Mantra. At this point, the card’s working name was “Communion.” You can see that Rebecca Guay received the color of the card, the card type, and what the card was planned to do, game-wise. (In this case, it would grant creatures protection.) It lists the color palette that the artist is intended to use, as well as the “location” that the illustration is taking place in. There is a decently lengthy description of how the entire illustration should look, along with specific characters that should be in it. They were to “see the style guide” to learn the specific details of the characters Orim and Cho-Manno.
Fast forward to the sets of today’s age. The artists are not asked to illustrate something simple that can be seen from across a room – they’re asked to illustrate something that could be a book cover. The problem is, these are not printed on book covers. The images are reproduced so small that they aren’t even 2 inches by 2 inches.
Can you believe that four completely different artists illustrated the above four Gatecrash cards? If I didn’t know any better, I would have assumed that these four random cards were illustrated by the same artist that used the same exact computer program and formula for all of them. That’s not the case, though. These four illustrations came from four different artists. The game is completely homogenized in today’s printings. The artists seldom have the individual fingerprints that older players so loved in Alpha. Some of this is to blame on traditional artists moving toward using digital media, but that’s a different topic for a different article.
During the early days of Magic, Jesper Myrfors strived for cards to be instantly recognizable. It was a wild success. As a Vintage player, there are rarely issues of not being able to instantly recognize a card based solely on immediate visual identification, at least with the older cards. I’ve only played in one Standard event in the last few years. A friend of mine offered to lend me his deck, so I figured, “Why not?” Throughout the five rounds, I continuously had to read my cards as if I’d never once seen them before. I could never get properly acquainted with the card on a visual level, even over the course of many games.
Dreg Mangler, Lotleth Troll, and Corpsejack Menace. Three different artists illustrated those cards, although I’m hard pressed to believe it. Based solely on picture recognition, I could never quite tell which card was which until I read some of the card text. This is the current state of Magic’s art, and this is why many fans of the game’s art look back to the days of Alpha so fondly. It encapsulated imagination… the “shores” of imagination, if you will.
In the next installment of this epic review of Alpha artwork, we’re going to take a closer look at the diverse individuality and sensibilities of the 25 artists that worked on these quintessential 302 illustrations. Stay tuned.
Brian J Siegel says:
Excellent article! Thought I was the only one who cared about the art of old school magic sets. Great read!
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