We got to ask Wizards of the Coast artist and art director Ovidio Cartagena about the new officially licensed The Lord of the Rings expansion cards for Magic: The Gathering.
Was there any particular aspect, creature, or perhaps landmark of Middle-earth that you haven’t seen
from other artists, and have always wanted to bring to life through your own art?
The Scouring of the Shire and the Battle of Bywater were very interesting to me. The whole plot involving Old Toby, and the discovery of trade between Saruman and the Shire, always caught my attention.
Naturally, the destruction of something so warm and innocent like the Shire appears to be, and the corruption of many hobbits, is something that I wanted to show in detail in Magic’s adaptation of the books.
Has Tolkien’s own artistic style been an influence for you in your work?
Oh yes. We looked at Tolkien’s artwork during the development of The Lord of the Rings. I was very lucky to work with artists who were also influenced by these works. Tolkien’s work is incredibly clear and has a definitive shape language that is unmissable: you’ll know whose hand made it if you look at the work.
What other Tolkien artists inspire you?
The Hildebrandts were very influential for me growing up. Their talent seemed endless, and I was a big fan of their work on the LoTR calendar and the Marvel Masterpieces cards from the ’90s. It’s incredible that I get to say that I’ve worked in a set that also features the art of the Hildebrandts. I remember making illustrations for a Lord of the Rings calendar of my own, back when I was 18, a college art project, so it’s fair to say that LoTR and many of the Tolkien artists were a pretty big influence to what I do.
How much freedom were you all given to work on these characters?
We had a fair amount of freedom at the beginning. Interestingly, we didn’t have limitations placed before working on concept art. We had a lot of freedom to develop characters, environments, motifs and so on. At the end of the concept art process, we put together a guide that would help artists illustrate our vision for The Lord of the Rings, and Middle-earth Enterprises reviewed the guide and gave us their feedback. I was very nervous at first, but their reaction was positive and that began a great creative partnership between us. Most of the art you see in cards was based on that guide.
What was the process for the artist to submit work, to get to work on these cards?
Artists were selected on their capacity to deliver on one or all of the four parameters I set for the set’s visual direction: Epic (scale and scope), Legendary (attention to lore), Storytelling (attention to characters and their relationships), Pastoral (what our heroes are fighting to protect). Ekaterina Burmak, Magali Villeneuve, Tyler Jacobson, Jesper Ejsing, and many other greats lent their enormous talents and unique styles to create Magic: The Gathering’s Lord of the Rings.
What pressures are there to depict Bilbo in a world where two actors defined the character so
Bilbo is a very interesting character. And eccentric, too! I remember reading the Council of Elrond, and Bilbo initially volunteers to take the ring to Mount Doom… this is a true adventurer (who also happens to be attached to “his” ring) even after all these years. The design for the character was done in a card illustration by Anna Pavleeva, and we tried to put in his years of lived experiences, a bit of mischief and, of course, the confidence of a daring adventurer who wouldn’t shy away from an epic quest at 111!
How exciting is it to be in this new phase of Middle-earth adaptations? How do you consider your work alongside spheres of TV and new films?
It is hard for me to speak of a “revival” of The Lord of the Rings, because it seems like something that has had relevance for most of my life. But it is fair to say we’re seeing an increased focus on LoTR in the mainstream. I am, however, very excited about seeing different takes in media for The Lord of the Rings. There are so many things to explore in Middle-earth! The work we did for the Magic: The Gathering set was an epic endeavor in itself, and I’m very proud of how it holds up to the literature and the adaptations done in other media. I got to live in the time and place of the War of the Ring for a while as I directed the set, and the project gave me a chance to keep coming back to the books I love so much.
We paid attention to a lot of details and there are more than a few easter eggs to consider! The whole team pitched in with lore knowledge, and the passion we poured into the project will definitely show in the card set!
How do you apply more modernized styles of art/composition to illustrate the works of a writer like
Tolkien, who dealt mainly with antiquities?
I think Tolkien’s work will endure a lot of cultural changes, way beyond our lifetimes. There have been modern crane shots and dutch angles in the interest of dramatizing the events in the War of the Ring. We’ve used the skills and tricks of illustration to bring ourselves inside Tolkien’s rich world, as if we had been there. One of my conceits at the beginning of this massive project was that every illustration was a frame or painting commissioned right after the War, to document the events therein. Since culture hasn’t stopped, and techniques have evolved along with widespread visual language resources, our approach is to let the worldbuilding draw the viewer in.
Who is your favorite Middle-earth character, and why?
It is between Boromir and Denethor. It is easy to dislike these characters, but it is often missed that these were strong and great men with a great deal of knowledge. They’d been fighting and witnessing the rise of Sauron’s power, and were desperate to regain the greatness that Númenor once had. Denethor gave almost the air of a wizard due to his sharp intelligence, and wore chain mail under his elegant robe which meant he knew the importance of strength. It is interesting to speculate what Boromir would have achieved in better times – but he did not choose to be born at the edge of a Great War.
What’s your favorite piece for this new collection?
It is very difficult for me to pick a favorite piece because every artist gave us great work. I’ll just give a couple of shoutouts to folks who added personal greats to their portfolios:
- Gray Highsmith, who was one of the concept artists – they helped design the costuming and motifs of hobbits.
- Tyler Jacobson, whose epic ambition and incredible abilities gave the world a Battle of the Pelennor Fields painting worthy of a castle wall. He was also the designer of our Sauron, a truly unique take!
- Magali Villeneuve, whose massive talent embodied the soul of The Lord of the Rings, and her vision brought these awesome characters to life.
- Alexander Mokhov, who really came into his own as a Magic illustrator with his work in this set.
About the new The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth™ arriving June 23, 2023
The Lord of the Rings has come to Magic: The Gathering, and it’s time to take familiar favorites on a whole new journey there and back again. In the upcoming set The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth™, players have the chance to join the Fellowship in adventures filled with valor, courage, and second breakfast. Play your favorite moments of the third age or turn Middle-earth on its head and surrender to the temptation of the Precious. Either way; Middle-earth is in your hands.
The set has two primary launch windows—June 2023 and a holiday launch in November 2023—and is the first full set release as part of Universes Beyond, bringing the iconic world of J.R.R. Tolkien to life within the Magic frame. The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth is modern legal and comprised of Draft, Set, Collector, and Jumpstart Boosters, four Commander decks, a Starter Kit, a Bundle and Gift Bundle, Scene Boxes, and Secret Lair drops. For more information on which specific products are coming in June 2023, check out this article on DailyMTG.
The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth will also come to Magic: The Gathering Arena with all of the same cards as the tabletop release. The set will be legal in Alchemy and Historic formats and receive the same support as a full release, including a preorder, Mastery Pass, and cosmetics.