Chapter 6-The Sub Pop of Gaming


The Sub Pop of Gaming  

If GENCON ’93 confirmed one thing, it was that Wizards’ modest hopes for the game were going to need drastic revision. Quite what caused the instant public reaction to the game is open to interpretation — the gameplay was undeniably brilliant, but the playtesters had enjoyed the same experience and still only counted on punters buying a deck or two. Chris Page, one of the East Coasters who was at Gencon and witnessed the scramble for Magic firsthand, thinks the playtesters may have underestimated how much people would buy, simply because they themselves had not been able to buy cards: the quantity of cards in their environment was fixed and only via trading could they accumulate new tools for their decks. He also points to another factor that hooked the game’s early adopters: “I think the art added a big part to the game,” he says. “There was certainly a huge difference in seeing the finished cards compared to the playtest cards, which might have had like a black and white picture of an aeroplane or something stuck on them. I wound up buying two boxes worth at Gencon myself.” That would be music to the ears of Jesper Myrfors, who along with Lisa Stevens, had another complex production problem to solve during the game’s development: how does a new company, with very little cash, commission 302 pieces of full-colour artwork for a brand-new type of game?  

MyrFoRs IS A towering presence. Part artistic eccentric, with his long mane and black, paint-smudged leather jacket; part Viking, too. The gentle giant with a famously boisterous streak was born in Stockholm, Sweden, before his father was recruited out of the navy by Boeing to work in Seattle on the 747. He now lives surrounded by Lake Washington’s lapping waves on Mercer Island, a landmass reachable by road bridge from East Seattle, where inhabitants sip strong coffee and live for the glorious moments the sun breaks through the low-hanging cloud. Quite how one small island contains Myrfors’ boundless creative energy, brimming passion and bonhomie is a mystery. But, by common consensus, without those qualities, Magic would have been a far poorer product. Ask Richard Garfield if Myrfors helped raise the game’s production values and you get an emphatic, “Absolutely!” in response.  

In the early 1990s, Seattle was the world centre of misfit culture. Grunge music was taking over the airwaves in a raucous whirlwind of screeching guitars and flannel shirts, and reluctant artists were being thrust upon the world as standard-bearers of a new avant-garde. While Nirvana and their Sub Pop stable-mates floored fans with their heavyweight riffs, a new generation of local visual artists was flourishing, too, not least at Cornish College of the Arts. Housed in the handsome 1928 William Volker building on Leanora Street, just over the road from the Seattle Times headquarters, you cannot miss the school: painted in contrasting grey and maroon livery, today its name is stencilled on to the side of the building in huge letters. Contrary to some of their teachers’ expectations, the graduating class of 1993 were instrumental in making that name by deploying their brightly burning creative skills in the service of Magic. “There was just something in the air,” says Myrfors. A student at the college himself, it was he who bridged the gap between the misfits in the city’s creative scene and those striving away in Peter Adkison’s basement.  

The young Myrfors was an avid gamer and a huge fan of the fantasy artwork he discovered in role-playing books and board game boxes. His hero was the British illustrator Ian Miller, whose haunting, gothic artwork had helped define the look and feel of wargaming juggernaut Games Workshop. He was also a big fan of the role-playing game bought up by Wizards of the Coast to seal their push into the market, Talislanta. Having heard rumblings about the game being discontinued, a concerned Myrfors headed. to his local game shop, Games and Gizmos in Bellevue, to find out what was going on. There, the staff informed him that a local company had bought the game and would be bringing out a fresh version. Myrfors scribbled down Wizards’ details, popped them into his wallet and promptly forgot about them.  

More than anything else, Myrfors wanted to be a fantasy artist. His work at Cornish was dedicated to his favourite genre. But despite the technical skills he was learning from his most inspirational teacher Preston Wadley, he was getting little practical help on how to break into his chosen industry. Instead, staff at the college pointed him in two directions: Album covers or book jackets. And, they told him, he would have to move to New York or Los Angeles to crack either of those markets. Frustrated but undeterred, Myrfors promised in the summer of 1992 that he would not return for his final year at Cornish without a piece of published fantasy artwork to his name.  

It was then that he remembered the scrap of paper lodged in his wallet and phoned up Wizards. Lisa Stevens, art directing between her many other roles at the start-up, agreed to look at Myrfors’ portfolio. Although she felt his artwork wasn’t the right look for Wizards, she put him in touch with her old employers White Wolf and John Tyne’s Pagan Publishing. Very soon Myrfors had his first published fantasy artwork under his belt. Mission accomplished. But Myrfors couldn’t stop there – the Talislanta fan in him wouldn’t let him.  

 “How about I do a piece on spec for you?” he asked Stevens. He would do a piece of artwork to her brief and she could decide whether she wanted to buy it or not. Stevens acquiesced and asked Myrfors to do a piece for Talislanta within a week. Eager to impress, Myrfors produced two paintings in one weekend. Stevens showed them to Talislanta creator Stephen Sechi for his approval and suddenly Myrfors was on board, working on his favourite game, on his own doorstep.  

The larger-than-life Myrfors quickly made a name for himself at the Wizards office with his infectious enthusiasm, sense of fun and determination to make great games. Soon, he was attending Wizards’ weekly Thursday meetings and helping out with any odd job he could to cement his role at the company. But popular as he was, he noticed that he was not invited to a series of secret meetings that the key employees kept slipping off to. ‘The Project’, as they dubbed it, was off limits to him. It took tenacity and plenty of grunt work before he could ingratiate himself with the inner circle. Finally though, he managed to infiltrate one of the shadowy pow-wows. Someone thrust a Magic playtest deck into his eager hands. And Myrfors had his first crack at a game that would instantly supplant Talislanta in his affections. The seasoned gamer’s reaction was instant: “I don’t want any money for the work I’ve done,” he told Peter Adkison. “Just pay me in stock.” These little cards were going to change everything; Myrfors could sense it in his bones. But something would have to be done about the photocopied Calvin and Hobbes artwork.  

ALTHOUGH CORNISH COLLEGE’S staff knew little about the fantasy industry, they were correct that book covers and album sleeves were the main outlet for full-colour fantasy artwork. Although boxed games, role-playing rules books and fantasy magazines were packed full of illustrations, much of it was by necessity black and white. Printing in full colour was still an expensive undertaking, particularly for a start-up, and full-colour artwork was reserved for high-impact covers, because it cost so much to commission. Part of Peter Adkison’s thinking when he gave Richard Garfield the brief to create Magic, was that there was a stockpile of existing artwork to be mined. Much of it was produced by artists who, outside of the convention circuit where their work for small gaming companies was on show for hardcore fans, got little exposure. By buying up second- and third-use rights to existing artwork, Wizards figured they could quickly and affordably assemble enough artwork to populate Garfield’s game. But the idea of pasting existing artwork on to such a radical new game, necessarily giving it a generic look and feel, horrified Myrfors. At once artist and gamer, he sensed that the game’s customisable nature meant that it was crying out for each card to be an individual treasure; to be discovered, collected and curated in its owner’s deck. At once, Myrfors petitioned Adkison to do everything he could to use original artwork.  

In his gut, Adkison knew Myrfors was right. But the budget for the game would only stretch so far: the best deal Adkison could come up with for each piece of artwork was $50 cash, $50 in stock and 50 artist proofs (one-sided versions of the finished card which artists could hand out to promote their work). But the key incentive would be a slice of a royalty pool established for the artists – a certain percentage of sales would go into it and the money would be divvied up according to how many Magic images the artists had done. For established artists, it was not a hugely enticing offer. But Myrfors knew where to turn for help: “Peter,” he said. “I can get you the artists.”  

JULIE BAROH Is Seattle born and bred. Today, she works out of an ex-industrial unit in Georgetown in the south of the city with fellow artist Mark Tedin. The young Baroh, though, was a sports-loving tomboy with energy to burn, who preferred cutting class to planning her academic future. When it did become time to figure out what to do after high school, she opted for the local art college. Even with a low grade-point average, she figured, she had a chance of scraping in. Besides, she had been drawing since she could hold a pencil and Cornish College seemed like a cool, creative place in tune with her mindset and Seattle’s prevailing vibes at the time.  

Her first two years were hell. The illustration course she had enrolled on demanded that students take two years of graphic design, before any actual illustration began. That felt like a waste of time to the rebellious young Baroh, who was soon dodging class again and plotting an escape route out of the lessons that were dragging her down. Her art student friends, including Jesper Myrfors with whom she had grown up on Mercer Island, Amy Weber and Sandra Everingham, made life tolerable – but when she was unceremoniously booted off the course, she was only too glad to go. Instead, she found a place for her talents on Cornish’s fine art programme, where she decided to major in print-making and sculpture. Still, she talked regularly with her friends from across the curriculum. And, it was not long before Myrfors put the Wizards deal to her – and indeed all his peers at Cornish.  

Baroh, along with Weber, Everingham, Andi Rusu, Cornelius Brudi and recent Cornish drop-outs Anson Maddocks and Drew Tucker, all jumped at Myrfors’ offer. Tedin, meanwhile, was a friend of Maddocks’ looking for work after finishing a masters’ degree in St Louis. There, his tutors had despaired at the doodles of Klingon battle cruisers littering his sketchbook. “To us, it just sounded. a lot of fun,” says Baroh. “And Jesper really loved the concept. He emphasised to us what a completely new type of game it was and pretty soon, we were all caught up in his enthusiasm for it.” For most of the artists involved, including Baroh and Tedin, it was their first paid gig. They took to it with gusto, even if fantasy illustration was not something they had done before, even without fully understanding the game, or indeed, without being fully formed artists. Wizards was their Sub Pop Records: the DIY, punk rock upstarts of the gaming world and the outlet for a new wave of alternative art.  

To Myrfors, this was exactly what such a radical new game needed – up-and-coming artists with equally new ideas. “None of them were particularly fantasy artists,” he says. “But I liked that.” For Myrfors, now the de facto art director for Magic’s first print run, variety would be key to the game’s appeal. He would rather include bold art that risked polarising players than re-tread the same old fantasy tropes for the nth time. His other guiding principle was that the art should be recognisable from a few feet away, so that anyone walking past a table of Magic players could spot that they were playing the startling new game. “I didn’t want book covers reduced down to a muddy mess,” he says. “It had to be clean, iconic images.”  

The artists Myrfors had contacted (plus some recruited by Stevens from her White Wolf days) went into overdrive. Soon, they were comparing notes, enthused by the collective buzz of working on a new project together, their first as professionals. Myrfors remembers doing much of his work while hanging out with other painters watching John Woo movies. Friends such as Mark Tedin and Anson Maddocks would egg each other on. And Julie Baroh found herself locked in alien debates with Myrfors about what exactly a blue spell called Clone, her first piece, should look like. It was a creative explosion that turned up fantastic results – and came as no surprise to Myrfors’ mentor at Cornish, Preston Wadley. He remembers the class of 1993 with great fondness and an avuncular chuckle: “I remember the first day we had a homework assignment due and everybody pinned their work to the wall for acritique,” he says. “The gauntlet was laid down. It was going to be the homework wars, I could see that. There was a supportive, nurturing competition within that group and no-one wanted to be the one that didn’t give their best.”  

Soon the work was rolling in as quickly as Myrfors could process it on his rudimentary set-up at Wizards: a Mac Centris 650 with Version 2 of Photoshop and a tiny flatbed scanner that restricted everyone’s artwork to the maximum size of 5” x 7”. Myrfors was teaching himself the software on the fly – and along with fellow artist Chris Rush, working on the graphic design of the cards themselves. Rush designed the Magic: The Gathering logo (The Gathering having been added because Wizards were unable to trademark the word ‘Magic’ alone) and the mana symbols for the five distinct colours in the game. Myrfors designed the borders that would frame each illustration and present the card’s title, casting cost, rules text, and power and toughness if it was a creature. One feature he included was a different texture to each colour of card, so that even colour-blind players could distinguish between them. He also designed the card back, which to this day remains unchanged — just.  

Previously, games had used a single illustrator for their components. But the impossibility of asking one artist to produce over 300 pieces of colour art was turned into a virtue by Myrfors and the 25 artists he assembled to produce Magic’s artwork. Variety was the key value – and one thoroughly embraced by Richard Garfield. With Myrfors dishing out only the most minimal of briefs, there were few guidelines in place, although it is worth noting that from the word go, female nudity was ruled out. Scantily clad maidens being rescued by beefcake barbarians represented the very worst of generic fantasy art. Unfortunately, it was a misogynistic rut that the largely male Dungeons & Dragons player base had at times dragged role-playing into in the late 1970s. Wizards’ decision was in tune with more politically correct times and signalled their hope that with a new female-friendly game, women gamers could be reached in more significant numbers.  

That rule aside, the artists were to give free rein to their imaginations. Baroh worked quickly in coloured pencil to produce cards with names like Clone and Mindtwist. Tedin tapped into his comic-book influences for images such as Timetwister and Chaos Orb. Myrfors produced desolate landscapes for powerful special lands such as Bayou and Tundra, while the artist Drew Tucker produced distinctive loose watercolours for cards such as Plateau. Uncharitable souls might have called it a hodge-podge but the results were exactly what Myrfors and Garfield wanted – a wild mixture of bold imagery that reinforced the game’s modularity. They hoped the art would excite players, as much as it did the Wizards staff who hotly debated the pieces as they flowed in. A new gaming form deserved a new aesthetic, says Mark Tedin, who fondly remembers seeing the game’s visual world take shape. “The bonus of having so many different artists from so many different fields and backgrounds, was that there was no pre-conceived notion about what the art should look like,” he says. “It was really rewarding seeing everyone’s different efforts coming together.”  

THE IMPACT OF Magic’s art was very real on us in our far-flung corner of New Zealand. This was a startling and gripping universe, completely removed from the drudgery of our teenage existence. We had imagined we would recognise the artists’ names at the bottom of each card, from other fantasy games or magazines. But instead, we were left startled by the unknowns from Seattle. They had opened our eyes to a new world with their bold brushstrokes, just as bands from the same city had opened our ears.  

My best friend at the time, Simon Hope, had even managed to get his hands on a bizarre promotional poster released by Wizards of the Coast. It featured images of dozens of iconic Magic cards. But, perhaps as an attempt to foil would-be counterfeiters, the cards were reproduced without any text on them. Even the names were omitted. And yet, every time we met to play, sprawled on Simon’s bedroom floor, we would drag the damn thing out and pore over it. We were searching for clues as to what each card might be called or what each might do. But ultimately, that was just a pretext. We were in the sway of these images, more complex and often more abstract than any fantasy art we had ever seen before. They were simply, undeniably, ‘cool’; that intangible virtue marketers all seek to inject into their products. And, if these images were cool, it was because they pushed at the boundaries of what was considered fantasy at the time, calling us to artistic realms beyond the confines of genre.  

What never occurred to us when we were looking at that poster though, was to ask whether Magic needed artwork at all. The illustrations had us in their grip. But after all, many of the world’s most enduring games are played out with abstract components (such as go and backgammon), tiles or cards organised by suit and number (such as poker or mah-jong) or imagery simplified to the symbolic (chess). Their popularity is due not only to the quality of their gameplay, but because such components are instantly understandable. That helps makes classic games graspable by players from across continents and cultures — and indeed by those who may harbour prejudices against a specific genre, in this case what in the broadest brushstrokes gets called ‘fantasy’.  

Indeed, ask most top players today which images adorn the cards in their Magic decks and they probably won’t be able to tell you. While that may say something about the more homogenous direction the game’s art has evolved in since Jesper Myrfors last worked at Wizards in 2000, it is also due to modern players’ focus on the mechanics of each card, rather than their aesthetic impact. For them, the game could be about cops and robbers, cars or robots. Indeed, some of those themes may have introduced the game toa different audience. But it is worth noting, that however hard it can be for a 30-something man to explain his excitement about a new goblin card to sceptical norms, Magic’s genre is intrinsic to its quality as a game. Unlike any of the classic games mentioned above, which are played with a fixed number of pieces, Richard Garfield’s modular concept meant an identity of some kind had to be mapped on to the cards. Magic would never have been able to grow as per the implications of its design if the cards, instead of being divided into five colours with individual names, were divided into five suits with a number like traditional playing cards. It would have been nigh-on impossible to conceive new designs and create the richness of the game (now with around 13,000 unique cards) if each card was only an abstract value. This is particularly true of recent ‘top-down’ Magic sets where cards have been designed to represent a certain theme, like gothic horror in the popular Innistrad expansion. More broadly, too, though: creating a game with an infinite variety of pieces requires giving each of those pieces an identity. And fantasy was the perfect fit.  

 “It’s easy to say fantasy is an element of so-called ‘geek culture,” says Skaff Elias. “But it’s not. It’s an element of culture generally. You can walk up to a person in the street who has never played a game of any kind before and ask them what they a think ashield should do versus a sword. They will automatically know that. If you try and think about what kind of intellectual property you can map over a game like Magic, you will be hard pressed to find anything remotely close to fantasy in terms of its ability to convey comprehension.” Fantasy tropes are largely drawn from myth and whatever technological advances we may trumpet in the 21st century, that remains a deeply engrained part of who we, as humans, are.  While Magic may never be as popular as Uno, there is little point in its fans banging their head against the incompatibility of their pastime with friends who claim simply not to ‘get’ fantasy. Like it or not, Magic would not be the game it is without its genre. Without the artwork that enraptured its players in the early 1990s, sprawled on bedroom floors everywhere.  

SOME TWENTY YEARS on, Preston Wadley is still teaching at Cornish College. A 61-year-old whose mixed media work juxtaposes found objects and photographs, he is the one teacher the Cornish Magic artists immediately mention as their most influential. Without him, many would never have learned the skills or indeed the self-confidence to produce the work for the game that they did. He is, in short, the spiritual grandfather of Magic art. And like any grandfather, he is immensely proud of how his charges turned out. Batting away any notion that he should take credit for the success of his former pupils, he says that, on the contrary, it was easy teaching the students who trained their brushes and pens Magic-wards. “They had desire,” he says. “And you can’t teach that.” While Wadley says that Myrfors was the leader in that sense, none of the artists who learned their trade at Cornish and graduated on to Magic would have done so without that same gnawing need to achieve excellence. They were hungry. They were ambitious. And they weren’t afraid of hard work. “Assessing your weaknesses, realising what you have to do to overcome them and making your goals manifest,” says Wadley. “That’s where real talent lies.”