Have you ever played the Telephone game? Where one person picks a phrase and then whispers it to another person in the chain and so forth down a row a of people until you ask the last person in the chain what was said? Often times the phrase barely resembles what was said at the beginning of the chain. Now imagine asking an artist to draw a subject and then ask another artist to draw the same thing based on the first artists rendition. Then a third artist off the second’s work. Then a fourth off the third’s, and so on. With each artist putting their own spin and style on the subject, you’ll find that changes will start to happen pretty quickly.
Artists all have their own ways of doing things, and that’s great, but that doesn’t help when making sure you tell a consistent story; this is where style guides come in. If you have been playing Magic: The Gathering for any length of time, you are familiar with the character Jace Beleren. He’s known for his trademark outfit, specifically his cloak and the designs on it.
All of those paintings read as Jace the character, but are done in each of the artist’s style, and that’s great. An artist might have been able to duplicate the look created by Aleksi Briclot that printed in 2007, but what if his looks were to change suddenly. During the set Shadows over Innistrad Jace got a new accessory to fit in better in on the Gothic Horror themed plane; a leather duster with a similar design to his cloak.
But how did every artist know how to draw the cloak so they all looked the so similar? What if, instead of each artist basing their work on all the examples that came before them, they were given a clear detailed representation of Jace with his new leather coat? There would be no multiple diverging interpretations if each had a detailed image as the base for their image. This is the purpose of a style guide, or world guide when it has more details about the location as well. It is a document, given to artists, that details the imagery and details the locations, races, objects and characters in a world so that when a given a commission for a piece of art it is consistent and recognizable by the viewer.
If you were lucky enough to be at the Magic 25th Exhibition in Japan last September you are one of the lucky few, outside of Wizards staff or artists, that have seen a world guide. Though they were heavily redacted, to avoid spoilers, they showed the public the world guide for Ravnica. We, the public, have gotten few snippets of the guides before, mostly through articles from Wizards staff and what has been released from artists and the Art of Magic series of books.
For the first several years of Magic’s history there were no style guides. Tempest block in 1997 was the first true time a style guide was used. A style guide then became a mix of story, concept art and brand info for creators to use. The story lets us know how the set fits into the setting; what races and location will be important. The concept art push is done by a collection of artists working together to create as much material as possible and then the best bits will be pulled together for the final guide. The last part, brand info, has information on Magic as a game and how the colors operate and interplay with one another.
Cynthia Sheppard, who was the Ixalan art lead, was responsible for the art direction in the world guide for Ixalan. In the Art of Magic: The Gathering Ixalan book Cynthia had a section at the end where she discussed the Ixalan world guide. It ended up being a 208 page book filled with all the info artists and writers would need to start creating pieces on the plane of Ixalan. She said much of the text you see in the Art of Magic books are a “refined and polished” version of what is put into that document. There are still several details that we would never get to know without seeing the world guides as a deeper look behind the curtain. Cynthia explained how the humans of Ixalan that are part of group known as the Sun Empire only wear silver. This was done to visual distinguish them from the vampires that wore a lot of gold in the set, but also as part of the concept push the idea came up that the Sun Empire gave up wearing gold after losing control of Orazca, the City of Gold. It’s not mentioned on any cards, but it’s a great story explanation for their style of dress.
I’ve mentioned the concept phase of Magic: The Gathering is one of my favorite parts of the game. I’ve always been fascinated by style guides; there’s so much that goes into the game that we never get to see. Or if we do get to see any of it, we only see a small fraction. Because the creation is done so smoothly we don’t have to worry about recognizing Jace if his outfit changes;that applies to everything in the game though. So, when it comes to clothing, races, locations, items, etc. all need to be fleshed out. This is so that when a Magic set comes out with a hundred people contributing work for it, there is a consistency across the set’s art and story.
I want to end by showing you one of my favorite kind of concept pieces. It shows the heights of all the major races in the Lorwyn setting. Someone had to think about how tall a merfolk on Lorwyn would be in relation to a giant, or how much shorter a kithkin is to a flamekin. It was some time before I really appreciated how much goes on behind the scenes before an artist even gets to put their own creative spin on the art that appears on the card. Those of us interested in the behind-the-scenes aspects of Magic art are being rewarded more than they have ever before. I’ve seen more concept work presented by the artists and Wizards in the last couple of years than I can remember in a long time. So hopefully knowing it's out there encourages you to take a deeper dive into what went into making your favorite set come to life!