Long before Wizards of the Coast senior art director Ovidio Cartagena and his team of artists conjured up cavernous depths populated with jade merfolk and fungal tyrants, he would ride the bus back and forth to school each day in his hometown in Guatemala. In his day-to-day life, Cartagena saw Mayan pyramids and statues of warriors who fought the conquistadors. Fast forward several years, and he’s now living in the United States, but those experiences live on through the art of Magic: The Gathering in the Lost Caverns of Ixalan set.
The Lost Caverns of Ixalan is Magic’s 98th expansion. Set for global release on Nov. 17, this new expansion will bring players back to the plane of Ixalan, a land inspired by Latin America filled with explorers looking for a lost city of gold. This time around, rather than explore the jungles on the surface, the set explores a vast underground world filled with gods and thriving cultures. In anticipation of the release of The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, Cartagena sat down with Polygon via video chat to talk about the creation of the set and reveal the art for eight never-before-seen cards. In our conversation, he talked about building a colorful, vibrant world that served as a love letter to Latin America.
For Cartagena, the idea for The Lost Caverns of Ixalan set has been in the making “for years.” He played the first Ixalan set when it was released in 2017, which inspired him to work as a Magic artist. He eventually applied for a job at Wizards of the Coast. When he interviewed for the position, he pitched a set that followed the concept of going underground based on the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya K’iche’ people. Though it was just a pitch for an interview, a few years later, he found himself working on a Wizards team that was looking to create an underground world.
“We were thinking: Should it be on the original new plane or should it be an existing plane? And so on,” Cartagena told Polygon. “About halfway in the process or something we were like, Well, you know what? It makes sense that it’s Ixalan, and the vision team went with that. Doug Beyer was a creative director at the time and Jessica Lanzillo, the other creative director at the time, went, ‘OK, OK, you know what? You get your Ixalan.’ And I was very lucky that I had been thinking about many ideas for a long time. I had a lot of ideas.”
Ixalan is about the thrill that comes from riding dinosaurs and taking names. It’s also about conquest. The original set told a story where factions competed to discover a mythological city of gold. As far as stories go, the first visit to Ixalan portrayed a standard colonial narrative where outsiders descend upon a dark and mysterious land with the intent of exploiting its riches. Now, The Lost Caverns of Ixalan turns this world inward, literally. As players collect cards, they’ll see art that dives deep under the surface of the land to discover entirely new worlds and cultures.
“Originally, my conception was the Popol Vuh. We didn’t do the Popol Vuh. We did something that was very keyed into what Ixalan has been about in the last few sets, which is about cultural encounters. This time, the difference is the Sun Empire is going to encounter a different culture, which is the one that originated their own. And others in the same plane under the surface.”
Visually, Cartagena wanted the color palette to be brighter and more colorful than the prior two Ixalan sets. “I wanted it to be vibrant. Like I remember, you go into a market, there’s a lot of colors, there’s a lot of noise, there’s a lot of music, and there’s people yelling at each other or laughing or dancing.” Even with simple cards like Braided Net, artist Diego Gisbert imbues a depiction of an Oltec fisherman hard at work with hues of fuschia and turquoise.
Cartagena emphasized that Lost Caverns still contains all the fun from the original set, dinosaurs, pirates, and all. In addition to the four factions previously introduced, The Lost Caverns of Ixalan introduces three additional groups. First, there’s the Malamet, a culture of jaguar folk known for developing a rich written tradition. Next, there’s the Mycoids, a hivemind culture of fungal beings led by an ominous leader known as the Mychotyrant. And last, but certainly not least, are the Oltec, the living ancestors of the Sun Empire who live in a “highly advanced communal society with a direct connection to their gods,” as Miguel Lopez, a world-building designer on the expansion, described them in a presentation.
“The Oltec are a love letter to Latin America, not just the history but the peoples now,” said Cartagena. “They wear clothing that are worn right now. Huipiles is something that you use right now — the Oltec use huipiles and ponchos. The patterns are of modern design. The palette is of modern design. There are colors that you just couldn’t replicate 600 years ago that you can use now, and the Oltec use it in their clothing, along with Cosmium.”
Prior to this set, Cartagena also worked as senior art director on Magic’s The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth expansion. In that set, Cartagena wanted to depict a warm side of Middle-earth that felt “lived in” and embraced the folk side of its fantasy world. He emulated this approach with Lost Caverns and extended it into a celebration of several different kinds of Latin American cultures.
“In the case of Braided Net and Quipu, we wanted to highlight daily life and how dignified work is as well. You see a fisherman throwing the net, and we even had a reference of someone’s relative to get that wizened look. That’s something else about this set. In Latinoamérica, elders are very important. So there’s a lot of elderly people. Same with Quipu, it’s a gentleman who’s around [his] 60s, 60-something. And you have abuelo or you have other characters that are coded this way. These people pass down the wisdom and are people you respect and admire from previous generations.”
At its heart, Lost Caverns is about seeing the age of exploration from the perspective of the people who lived there, instead of the vampiric conquistadors. This shows up in the story and via the new factions, but also in the art. Even details like the frames of cards help drive home some of this shift in perspective. In the first Ixalan set, the land cards had a frame that looked like parchment paper. Now, the frames are styled to look like codexes, inspired by the visuals in the three surviving pre-Columbian Maya books, like the Madrid Codex.
Lost Caverns unabashedly pulls from several Latin American cultures across different periods of time. The art in the cards shows glowing petroglyphs inspired by the Nazca Lines. The Maya calendar inspired the gears and other ornamental motifs. The Oltec wear the braided quipu, which was created by Inca cultures. In this sense, Lost Caverns comes across as a collage of various Latin American cultures and periods. Given the ways it pulls from various cultures, and the possible issues that can come with homogenizing various cultures into one set in fantasy, Polygon asked Cartagena how the team approached building a single world from several cultures and peoples.
“We only got the one fantasy world. We did it depending on the faction that you would focus on and what [the faction] does there. So the jaguar folk are based on the gods and their servants in the Popol Vuh. You’re thinking about the theme, and what they do here, and why they are here, rather than thinking, OK, well, I’m gonna pick the Aztec and the Aztecs are gonna become so-and-so. You don’t map stuff straight onto each other because you just don’t want to retell history. You want to make people curious about history enough that they’re gonna go after and seek out the sources and see, Oh, well, this is so cool. Where did they get it from? And I want people to have that feeling.
And so how did we go about it? We tried to see what was the best fit for the philosophy or the motif, or even the card mechanics. And that’s how we looked at the things, and of course, every card was reviewed by consultants.”
The project incorporated a lot of research and has a scholarly air to it. Team members including a linguist and consultant helped vet and guide the set. In addition, Cartagena said the cards incorporated recent archaeological and paleontological findings to inform the visuals. But The Lost Caverns of Ixalan wasn’t just an academic exercise; it also represented a deeply personal project for Cartagena and other Latine leads on the team.
“The set had a lot of things that I love: history, archaeology, languages, encounter of cultures, Latinoamérica, and I was very happy to include all these things. It was a process that was very taxing at times, but I’m very, very satisfied with it. This became a passion project for me and became actually a beacon.”
The project felt so personal that Cartagena couldn’t resist contributing illustrations to the set. For example, a statue of Tecun Uman, one of the last rulers of the K’iche’ people, that he would pass by on the way to school inspired his art of Jadelight Spelunker. And while the idea of an artist’s background informing their art might not be anything new, the work on The Lost Caverns of Ixalan stands out in a larger culture that often teaches Latine people to obscure their backgrounds.
“They teach many of us growing up in Latinoamérica to hate our own culture, and to hate indigenous languages. We sometimes are divorced from the people, our ancestors. And the last couple of decades have been a process of me trying to connect to that. I’ve lived in the U.S. for maybe a decade. So I wanted to connect with things I love, experiences I lived, and people I’ve met.”