When Senior Art Director Ovidio Cartagena sat down with his team to start working on Magic: The Gathering’s The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-Earth™, the scope was clear. “Lord of the Rings, to me, is… on the scale of The Odyssey, or Shakespeare. It's going to be remembered for centuries.” Taking on a project of that magnitude can be daunting, but Ovidio was able to keep the task in perspective.
Keep reading to get Ovidio’s thoughts on the pressure of designing for a major IP like The Lord of the Rings, how the card mechanics can enhance the art, and what he’s most proud of when it comes to this set.
GR: This is from New York Magic fan, Steven Buckler Rezo. “How did you go about selecting the characters and locations from The Lord of the Rings franchise to feature in the Magic: the Gathering set? And what factors did you consider when making these decisions?”
OC: There's only so many legends you can have. So you start with the most important things. I remember one of the designers made a pyramid of importance. At the top of the pyramid were the few things that people know and love, then it's what people will remember the most, and then it's what the true nerds know about. We got to about halfway to the base of the pyramid. So we got to include some true Easter eggs that, maybe you don't even remember that character! But we did have to leave some stuff out.
GR: Michael Tesslar from Los Angeles says, “Would love to know what sort of exciting challenges arose while trying to adapt such a prolific piece of IP to such a beloved game.”
OC: The pressure mounted; I can tell you that. The challenge was then to balance the tragedies of war, the awesomeness of Magic, and the beauty of life. It's important to remember that they are not fighting war because they love it. It's something they have to get through so that they can get back to living the good life.
GR: From Magic fan Leon Barrilaro, what was the weirdest stuff you found in the Silmarillion or in the novels?
OC: I will say The Bath Song. We found a way to address songs in the cards, actually. We're going to have Sagas - because music is so important to The Lord of the Rings. The World, Arda, was sung into being. So our way to use that was to have Sagas representing some of the different songs that we see in the books.
GR: This is from Magic fan, Matt, Omahan. “How does the usage of a frame on a card compare to the presentation of framed artwork in the gallery?”
OC: That's an interesting question because you can think of the blurb that a gallery painting has - those are card mechanics. They inform, many times, the illustration that we're doing. So something has Deathtouch or flying… You give certain credentials to the art when the card is beloved as well, when the card mechanics are beloved. And I'll tell you one thing - one of my favorite paintings that I've made for Magic, nobody cares about because the cards didn't become popular in the end. So it happens a lot that the card itself imbues the painting with a certain beauty or a certain mystery that even the illustrator wasn't thinking about.
GR: Reddit user guyawn - “In what ways did the art direction push to make pieces more in the style of Magic: the Gathering relative to classic fantasy book illustration?”
OC: I think we have a mix in the set. There is a graphic approach. But my initial conceit when I did this was, “Let's think about each illustration as if it was a piece of art commissioned after The War of the Ring to commemorate the events.” So thinking from that point of view, it gave me a good feeler for where to use which styles and framings for each illustration.
GR: And it's so human how you chose to handle that too. Because I feel like, through all society, we've been trying to recreate our own visions of history and put ourselves in there.
OC: Well, The Lord of the Rings, to me, is a very important work of literature. On the scale of The Odyssey or Shakespeare. It's going to be remembered for centuries. You have to remember that these works of art have seen many, many adaptations through time because we're not making it in a vacuum. And we're not freezing history either. We are moving with history. People have been putting themselves in this work for decades, people have been interpreting this work in many different ways, seeing themselves interpreted in many different ways. We are just now joining the conversation rather than starting it.
GR: Fan Max Gollub asks, “What are you most proud of?”
OC: I was very happy when we were designing characters and I saw a diverse lineup. Many people were included and many people felt seen. We were all very excited when we saw the first initial Fellowship and then we started spreading out to the rest of the characters. I was very happy. We gave them distinctive shapes and characteristics. You can tell who's who as you go through the card set, and we paid a lot of attention to that. So having that consistency and being able to do storytelling in a way that we've probably done in Magic, but not as much - not across every card. Every snapshot is a story moment. And those things make me very happy. Fan reactions too. A fan reached out to me and thanked me for what we did with the characters and told me a very touching story that will give me inspiration for the next 10 years, man. When a fan reaches out and they tell me what it means to them… that's the world.
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