Black History Month: Magic’s “Mirage” Expansion Set.

Poor M'tenda Lion.  If he had tried harder, maybe the Edu-Lords would have super-evolved him.

Poor M’tenda Lion. If he had tried harder, maybe the Edu-Lords would have super-evolved him.

On some level, this artwork is a direct sequel to yesterday’s post. On a more important level, it is referencing two things: one, the Friday Game of Magic: The Gathering that I play with students at lunch. Secondly…an analysis of that card game, and it’s artistic treatment of people of color in it’s Genre Specific Art.

It came about because a whole lot of the cards that I play with are pretty old. Many of them date back to the beginnings of the game, in the early and mid nineties, with a large block of cards from the “Mirage” expansion set. When we were playing, students inquired after some of the pretty old cards I was playing, and it got me to thinking about the content.

See…”Mirage” was a pretty important expansion, because it set the tone fore the expansions to come. Mirage was the first official block structure in releases of Magic: the Gathering. This new block structure consisted of three expansion sets and would continue for nearly two decades, finally ending with Khans of Tarkir in 2014. The new block structure also set up the precedent that the first set in the block also became the name for the entire block. Mirage block consisted of three sets: Mirage, Visions and Weatherlight.

While its origins in playtesting linked it to earlier sets, Mirage was not designed to stand alone. Mirage was created as an introduction to Jamuraa, with two more planned expansions to create a cohesive set. This model became the standard for Magic: The Gathering expansions and began the concept of “block rotation”. Wizards of the Coast’s design and development team considers Mirage to be the first set of the “Silver Age” or “modern” era of Magic. It was the first set to be designed with Limited and Constructed play in mind. Previous designs had been imbalanced for casual formats, and cards were designed for casual players rather than with thought of their impact on the tournament scene.

In addition…the Weatherlight set in “Mirage” was accompanied by a series of fictional works (novels) collectively known as the “Weatherlight Saga.” The saga was intended to be a “hero’s journey”-style story, in which the characters were fairly generic archetypes. Developer Mark Rosewater chose the skyship Weatherlight and its captain, Sisay, as the core of the new story, since making the story about a ship allowed for narrative flexibility in setting. The Saga was heavily referenced in the flavor text and card names of the set. “Weatherlight” marks a turning point in design and marketing philosophy for the Magic game and brand. While previous sets included allusions to an overarching story, Weatherlight was the first set to explicitly tell an ordered narrative focused on developed, archetypical characters. Weatherlight marks the first use of a metaplot tied to a Magic set. The first novel, “Rath and Storm,” covers events shown in the Weatherlight set, while later novels tell stories for later game sets.

What does ANY of this have to do with Black History Month?

It was also the first set to have an intentionally unified visual design outside of a Ren Faire inspired European Fantasy World. The game developers went with the world of Jamuraa, a tropical continent modeled after Africa, as the setting. As a result, for the first time in the game, real diversity of characters in the art and content was seriously approached. Wanting to draw about this attempt at diversity in 1996, I went to review all of the card art, here. As a result of reviewing all of the art in one place, I’m not so sure if the creators really achieved what they set out for. Feel free to click the link, and peruse for yourselves.

Some of the cards are fantastic works of art. That’s generally true of any Magic set, after the initial alpha cards. There’s a serious attempt at getting the “look and feel” of a non-European inspired, not dominated by white people, fantasy world. The thing is…some o the art is more than a bit uncomfortable. Kind of…what a bunch of people THINK a fantasy genre African world would be like, without maybe doing a whole lot of research past old Conan comics. Remember…the year was 1996, so the idea that you could do the same kind of Internet research that you could today was pretty much a fiction. Artists and creators were informed by more mundane research, and the influences on their ideas.

The most uncomfortable card has to be this one:

This is a straight up REAL card from the Mirage set.  No joke.

This is a straight up REAL card from the Mirage set. No joke.

Let’s analyze what was considered a good idea here. The art illustrates a white European style Fantasy wizard who has just ruined the place where the other characters on the card lived. From their skin tone and dress…they are clearly supposed to be from Jamuraa. I say skin tone and dress, because the artist gave them some pretty Euro features…but elements of setting and the colorist give is the story. The flavor text actually reads, “Sorry I burned down your village. Here’s some gold.” The card is actually called “Reparations.”

I’ll grant that this is primarily an American marketplace game, but “Reparations?” That had to get through the entire process of development and playtesting at Wizards of the coast without anyone batting an eye. I wonder if it would today?

Mind you, in the very same set, you got good cards with visually stunning and very well executed pieced of art, creating a world of fantasy heroes of color. Check these out:

Card art for Mangara's Equity.  incredible draftsmanship and beautiful color.

Card art for Mangara’s Equity. incredible draftsmanship and beautiful color.

Armor of Thorns, card art.  Not only a good card, but an illustration free of tropes and stereotypes.

Armor of Thorns, card art. Not only a good card, but an illustration free of tropes and stereotypes.

The card art for Sirocco.  The photorealism is only surpassed by the artist's use of expressiveness.

The card art for Sirocco. The photorealism is only surpassed by the artist’s use of expressiveness.

So…it wasn’t all “Reparations.” There’s a lot of good art there, and a real attempt at creating a diverse setting in a genre typically dominated by white ideas of Medieval Europe. Like any early attempt at diversity in any genre, there are bound to be some mistakes. Since then, the characters of Magic: The Gathering have maintained elements of cultural diversity, unlike many other games of similar type and genre.

For today’s art, I wanted to reference a card that I actually have a few of, and attempt to draw something different than I usually do. This is more of a setting piece, and the subject is a realistic animal, the M’tenda Lion. I also attempted to use a different style in the execution of the pencils…less of the defined lines that I usually use, and more areas of shading and scribbles that eventually form the lines. I’m very happy with the result, but I don’t think it’s a technique I can use regularly.

The M’tenda Lion is a good enough card, and his somewhat sad, or wistful look links well to yesterday’s art, with the Simba cub. As my caption suggests…maybe if he had trained harder, M’tenda could have been super-evolved, and rolling out with the heroes in those other cards. Instead…he’s just a 2/1 creature, that costs one forest to bring out, and can be stopped by tapping a single land.

Poor guy. He could have been a contender, I think.

So there it is. A look at the history of diversity in the original Collectible Card Game, Magic: The Gathering. Next Issue…Valentine’s Day!


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