Classic role-playing fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering has been through numerous editions, expansions and video game adaptations. Wizards of the Coast unveiled a couple of new cards for the latest upcoming expansion at a PAX Australia panel, to the impressed cooing of the audience.
After the panel, senior director of R&D Aaron Forsythe told Polygon that developing a deck of Magic: The Gathering cards involves extensive market research, more than 80 freelance artists and talent poaching.
"We'll make up new characters, we'll make up new cards all the time," Forsythe said, who went on to explain how they decide how to reintroduce older characters. "And we'll do extensive market research on who is popular, which ones are showing up in decks in tournaments and fIle all of that away. And so if a character keeps coming up [in tournaments], we will keep using it. It is a best guess the first time but we use pretty extensive market research to make sure we get it right."
In addition to attending a lot of tournaments and monitoring tournament deck lists to see which ones are being played, Forsythe said the company also conducts online surveys and talks to the community to see what is popular.
For the creation of the artwork, all of the artists who work on Magic are out-of-house, with the exception of two in-house art directors.
"Wizards used to employ a lot of artists in-house, but it was just easier to contract out-of-house," he explained. "A lot of freelance artists work for us for years and years. But some of those who do Magic Cards for us get noticed by a movie studio or a video game studio, and we can't use them anymore - but it is good for them because we have given them exposure."
Magic fans do apply for positions as Magic illustrators, but as Forsythe explains, the art director actively seeks out talent to use. "He goes to a lot of shows and they network a lot and they hear about an artist who does some awesome work for a video game and they track them down and say 'Hey, we'll love for you to do stuff for us.'"
Forsythe said it was easier to draw from a talent pool of freelancers rather than full-time staff to maintain the flexibility in Magic's artstyle, which is one of Magic's strengths, Forsythe said.
"It just lets us have a larger variety of artists to choose from," he said. "For instance we have done fantasy, sci-fi and Morrowind, which was fairytale. If we do a lighter setting we'll find the 80 artists who are good at that; if we do a darker setting we'll find the 80 artists who are good at that."
"You know, in Magic, one of its strengths is that it is changing from year to year, as opposed to some other game, like MMOs where they kind of have one traditional art style that they use for the entire length of their game. We want to be able to different themes with different artists."
One new theme is the expansion called Theros, due for release this September, which consists of a Greek mythology theme, with a "bright and kind of romantic" artstyle.
Forsythe told Polygon that the team does a lot of homework when developing a new theme. In the case of Theros, they brought in concept artists, a group of five or six artists good at greek mythology or Mediterranean subject matter. With access to reference books and the internet, the artists worked at the company's offices for two or three weeks working on concepts.
"We'll take the giant bunch of material that they made and pick out the ten percent of it that we think best represents what we want Theros to look like," he continued. "Then we turn that into a style guide, which we then mail out to every artist who is working on the set that year."
We asked Forsythe if they bring in experts to consult on the subject matter. "Everyone does their reading, so some of them will study ancient Greece and stuff like that," he said. "We aren't trying to write a doctoral thesis, so it doesn't have to be super accurate as long as we get the look and feel right."
Magic: The Gathering's Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014, which launched for Windows PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Android tablets and iPad last month, features Planeswalker Chandra. The central character for the fourth entry in the Duels of the Planeswalkers series was a woman, according to Forsythe, because of feedback from the MTG community.
"We do a different main character every year and we have been hearing a lot about female players that they want they want to see female representation," he said. "We have some strong female characters, the main character of Theros is a Planeswalker and Elspeth is very popular."
"We don't want to do the chainmail bikinis," he said when prompted about protective armor adorned by the hero. "I don't find that a particularly a good way to represent women, neither does our art director."
During the Magic panel, an audience member asked if a Magic artbook would ever be released. The audience enthusiastically responded to the mention of an artbook; however Forsythe, was unable to cement any solid plans for one with Polygon.
"The response [in the panel] was really good and we'll report back to the team about it," he told Polygon. "Our art is awesome and it deserves a lot better than a tiny picture on a card."