WTF, WotC? Your art direction is confusing.

The dilemma: two product lines, two art direction styles, one company

One of the things that has long been a source of irritation for me is the inconsistent art direction of Wizards of the Coast’s two major game products – Magic: The Gathering and D&D.  It strikes me as weird that M:TG and D&D are both product lines owned and operated by WotC, and yet they have such wildly different approaches to art direction. (To be honest, it seems like a bit of a branding issue to me, but then what the hell do I know. I’m just an indie publisher.)

This has become top-of-mind recently for a few reasons. First, despite both of us being Magic: The Gathering fans, my husband follows the design and spoiler blogs much more closely than I do. (In that he reads them and I don’t.) So he tends to show me previews of art that he knows I will either find hilarious or objectionable. (Or both.) Recently, he’s been showing me a lot more of the latter, alas.

Second, as I prepare for this year’s GenCon, I keep thinking about last year and how the release of D&D 5th Edition wound up being a pretty big deal for me – despite that I still have not purchased any 5E products or even played the game. I got to have lunch with Mike Mearls and discuss the future direction of D&D and D&D art direction – something which was way encouraging.

And everything that I’ve seen, at least observing from a distance, coming out of the new D&D line has been pretty great and inclusive! Like check out these illustrations that come from the starter set:


Pretty awesome, right? Fully clothed female characters that have personality, agency, and aren’t pointlessly objectified. And there’s lots more examples of this sort of thing!

Which, again, is baffling when you consider that Magic… Magic can’t decide what the hell it’s doing – if they want to do better by women, or exclude them, or have more of them but sexier, or just go back to their old awful ways and forget about trying to improve their depictions of women at all. As someone who has only seriously gotten into Magic in the last two years, it’s been weird and off-putting to watch.

So while I realize that the plural of anecdote is not data, it’s something that has bothered me sufficiently that I thought it would be worth taking a look at what Magic has been up to recently that has been getting under my skin.

M:TG’s recent art direction: I call shenanigans

I’ve written in the past about how I find the trend toward better art in Magic expansions to be (mostly) encouraging. Particularly in Khans of Tarkir – there were some really great illustrations of non-sexualized powerful women doing fantastically gonzo awesome shit! However, while Khans may have done much better in cutting down on the bullshit sexism, they did so at the cost of actually – yannow – depicting any women.

Still. I was hopeful that the overall trend of not fucking up at depicting women might continue! But alas, no joy.

First there came Magic: Origins – a core set focused on, well, the origins of the planeswalkers – characters that are meant to be player avatars. Being a core set, there are often a lot of reprinted cards, which tends to mean reprints of old art. So it’s not surprising that some old awful art (like the boobplate sideboob in Act of Treason) is sneaking through. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of brand-new awful to be found – particularly with their treatment of female planeswalkers.

See, planeswalkers in Magic: Origins are actually double-sided. They start out as a Legendary Creature, then when they meet a certain condition you turn them over and they become a planeswalker. In theory, pretty cool, right? You get a chance to see and play with familiar planeswalkers in their pre- and post-planeswalker states. The problem is, as always, the execution. Take, for example, Liliana – one of Magic’s oldest female planeswalkers. Liliana is a pretty classic example of the evil woman who is evil because she is sexay (or maybe she is sexay because she is evil?). But somehow WotC dug deep and found a way to make Liliana even worse:


On the left, you see Liliana in her pre-planeswalker state. That’s right, young, innocent, demure, and not even remotely sexual. On the right is the art for Liliana once she becomes a planeswalker – definitely one of the more sexual Liliana’s that I’ve seen. Because women with power are evil and evil women are sexy. Or something.

Sadly, it’s not unique to Liliana – whose color is black, which has always been the color of “evil”. Nissa Revane doesn’t fare any better, and she is plain old green. Just like Liliana, she gets to wear clothes when she’s not a planeswalker, but then as soon as she’s a planeswalker? BOOM. CLEAVAGE WINDOW.

What the ever loving fuck, Magic? Are you trying to say that women can only have power so long as they are sexually pleasing to a (presumed) straight male viewer? Because that’s pretty fucked up, especially for a game that claims to be friendly for children.

It gets even worse when you look at more fringey M:TG products that WotC is working on releasing, like Modern Masters – a limited edition set that will be reprinting some of the most popular cards that have fallen out of legality with the standard format. These are just straight up reprints of old cards with old art, which means that there is some extra shitty sexist cards like these gems:


Man, that woman in Blades of Velis Vel is possibly the most Liefeld-ian piece of Magic art that I have ever seen – obscured hands and feat, impossibly thin torso, improbable levels of spine arch, and ridiculous 90s-ish costume. All it needs is some AWSUM POUCHES!!1! to complete the ensemble.

Meanwhile, Indomitable Angel is both weird and baffling. Is she wearing armor, or is she actually made of metal and is just naked? Does she actually have an 8-pack? What is up with her shoulders? Are those actually attached to her boobs? Does she have metal boob-pauldrons? WHY ARE BOOB-PAULDRONS EVEN A THING??

But even Indomitable Angel isn’t as confusing as Fiery Fall. It took a solid two minutes of staring at it for me to even figure out what was going on until I realized that it was a human woman falling upside down so that the artist could get in both upskirt AND underboob without the unwanted effort of trying to squeeze in humanizing details like a face. Because who cares about portraying her as a person about to meet a grim fate so long as we can ogle her tits before she messes them up by falling into lava?

Ugh. Just ugh.

But for me, the shit icing on the shit cake are these two card previews taken from From the Vault: Angels – a limited edition 15 card set reprinting old angels. 5 out of the 15 cards are even getting new art, which I would normally take as an encouraging sign! That is until my husband showed me these:


Nope. That’s not old artwork, folks. That’s NEW artwork. New artwork which took the old character designs and faithfully translated them into something just as bad, or possibly even a bit worse than the old art:

I KNOW that I prefer the old Angel of Wrath to the new art. Sure the boobplate is just as stupid and obvious phallic symbol is still obvious and phallic. But at least the old art doesn’t make her look like she’s five seconds away from humping the damn sword. As for the Angel of Fury, I go back and forth. It’s definitely artist that the artist got lazy when it came to the not-sexy bits – obscured hands and feet anyone? But at least the old art looks like she’s actually doing something – namely flying. Whereas the new art shows her… uh… vamping? Power posing? I’m not really sure what, to be honest.

Conclusion: I don’t know what the fuck to think

So all of this nonsense has left me feeling very conflicted about the state of Magic: The Gathering and whether I want to continue supporting it with my dollaz. I enjoy the occasional sealed-pack event, which is pretty much how I’ve acquired most of my collection. And despite the problems that the Magic division of WotC seems to have with not actually failing at depicting women, I was willing to cut them some slack given that things overall seemed to (slowly) be getting better. But given the amount of eye-rolling I’ve done lately, I’m starting to question my willingness to continue turning a blind eye.

Seriously – I get that it can be difficult to change the direction of a flagship product as large and entrenched as Magic: The Gathering. But the knowledge and experience on how to do so already exists IN THEIR OWN DAMN COMPANY. Someone on the Magic team needs to pick up the damn phone and have a serious conversation with the art team for D&D already.

(As for myself, this has me regretting that I didn’t keep all my old data on art from Magic sets for previous posts about Magic on this blog. I know it would be quite the undertaking, but I’m thinking it could be pretty interesting (if incredibly time-consuming) to compile numbers for every set for the last three or so years so as to be able to have some real numbers regarding trends.)

22 thoughts on “WTF, WotC? Your art direction is confusing.

  1. Liliana, as a character, has always left me conflicted. I like some of her story beats and I think they’ve done a better job writing her in recent years, but they always seem to drop the ball when depicting her and fall back into the whole “she’s evil because she’s sexual” trope too often. She could be really cool if they’d just get their heads out of their asses occasionally.

  2. Regarding the new art for Akroma, Angel of Fury and Akroma, Angel of Wrath, it’s obvious that the art direction mandated the same costumes, hairstyles and accessories featured in the old art, and the mandate was followed scrupulously. I’m not surprised: in recent years the comprehensiveness, rigidity and detail level of briefs and style guides for Magic card art has reached its reasonable limits; gone are the days of artists drawing their own idea of what an angel should look like or cards adapting to available art.

    While remaking the old Akroma illustrations means a complete lack of progress on the sexist style front, there are valid reasons for such extreme conservativeness: an important character like this one (as opposed to, say, the generic angel in Doom Blade; see needs to be depicted very consistently or it becomes wrong.
    Even if they appreciated more reasonable clothing, players would start to complain that WotC doesn’t care about art anymore, that the artist is a moron, and so on; and they would be right.

    • See, that’s exactly the shit that I’m talking about. Art direction isn’t a thing that just happens magically – it doesn’t descend from on high from the lips of some magical sky being. Art direction policy is set and enforced by STAFF AT WOTC. It is the staff at WotC who have the power to, say, authorize redesigns. Which, by the way, would have been totally easy to pull off in ways that still referenced the old (sexist) designs and were still recognizable. Instead, they did the opposite – not only enforcing use of the old sexist designs, but not even clamping down on the level of bullshit in the new artwork!

      And as for “gamers will complain” – who the fuck cares? I have devoted a very large part of this blog to the fact that the gaming market is MORE diverse than the segment that WotC is currently targeting with M:TG. They stand to make A LOT more money if they could just stop being so fucking regressive. So not only are there “not being fucking assholes” reasons to improve their damn artwork, there are also solid “we would make a lot more money” reasons to stop targeting exclusively to the 18-34 cishet male.

    • They could write designs that reference the original art without being as bad. For example, they could give red Akroma clothes with the metal underwear on top as decoration.

  3. “Fully clothed female characters that have personality, agency, and aren’t pointlessly objectified.”

    I have to wonder… is it THEORETICALLY possible to have naked or even just bare-breasted female characters that have personality, agency, and aren’t pointlessly objectified?

    • This comment was mean to reply to Chauvinist piglet, but I accidentally clicked the wrong button.

  4. Ok, I have a few things here…

    First, black is not evil, nor are black characters inherently evil. Black is not immoral, it is amoral. Black believes everyone should look out for themselves because everyone knows themselves best and therefore will be the best person to do so. Black is selfish, willing to do anything to achieve its goals, but not inherently “bad.” It believes the world would be a better place if everyone simply looked out for their own interests. Just for the record: Amoral, not IMmoral. Black does not believe morality exists.

    I’d also like to point out that without understanding recent Mtg storylines, you miss a lot of powerful female characters that are not objectified. In a past article, you categorized the goblin Ankle Shanker as male. Someone pointed it out in the comments before I could, but it makes me wonder how many other females you missed in the Khans block. For example, three out of five dragon broods are headed by female dragons, while three out of five clans in Khans of Tarkir are headed by female characters, one of which is a naga. In Tarkir of the past, the Temur was headed by a woman, and the Mardu was headed by a trans woman. Many of these women played crucial roles in the story that had nothing at all to do with their sex.

    • First of all, thank you for making that point about black. It had to be done. However, to the layman, black characters appear evil, and appearances are important. Second, I agree with the point about the storyline, but Wundergeek’s point about the art stands.

      • My point in mentioning the storyline characters is because I am wondering if she missed that they were female by the way they were illustrated. I just wonder how justified her insistence is that there are substantially fewer female characters in Khans block. She seems to be bothered enough by the idea that she mentioned it in two different articles, but I’m not convinced it’s accurate.

        • If you read my old posts, then you’ll notice that the conclusions I draw about the percentage of representation are based on data, not general impressions. If you doubt the veracity of my claims, you are more than welcome to use my methods to count the figures yourself. My results are transparent and reproducible.

        • I just did a quick tally, and I got female figures as about 41% of figures with discernible gender. However, I was tired and I didn’t pay particularly close attention to my methodology. I found 223 figures with discernible gender and 91 of them were female. Wundergeek found 18%, so she may have looked closer at pictures with groups that were out of focus or maybe my methodology was totally insane. I recorded humans most of the time, although most of the humans are clothed in such a way that it is difficult to discern gender. I only recorded non humans if they seemed to have some gendered characteristic or if they have been confirmed as one gender or another by stories or Doug’s tumblr.

          • Yes, I did look VERY closely at group shots, because group shots are what make the difference. When I wasn’t sure, I googled the original artwork to find bigger versions. The individual shots that depict women are fine, but the imbalance comes in the group shots – which ALL have either only 1 or 2 players. Jeskai Ascendancy is one of the worst: out of 9 figures, 8 have discernable gender and only one of THOSE is a woman.

            I stand by my tally. I may be off by a bit, but there’s no way that women make up 41% of figures when the pattern I observed with Jeskai Ascendancy was repeated over and over and over again.

            • Thanks, Wundergeek. To everyone else: please note what I said about being tired and what Wundergeek said about looking closely at group shots. Wundergeek’s study was more careful than mine, and should be recognised as a greater authority. If you find different results with a study as careful as Wundergeek’s, please share your results. Do not use my data to invalidate hers.

      • Back in Fallen Empires, they hung a lampshade on this, pointing out that the Order of the Ebon Hand was far more tolerant than the Order of Leitbur.

        I don’t know about anything recent, but storywise, black was always pretty evil. From the Ebon Hand to Lim Dul to the Sengir clan, their modus operandi was generally raise army of undead monsters, kill everyone else and then rule a kingdom of death.

        Homelands had really good representation of women; one of my favorites was the vampire hunter lady who was tailor made to kill Sengir Vampires (provided they didn’t have any +/+ tokens yet). There was even a legendary direct damage dwarf wizard lady.

        • There is a bit of a disconnect between Maro’s insistence that black is not evil and black people’s behaviour in MtG stories.

          • That could’ve been worded better…
            But yeah. It’s like that sketch when the two Nazis are all “Man, look at all the skulls on our uniforms. Do you think that maybe we’re the badguys?”

            • Yes, it could have. I apologize for that. However, one could argue that this reveals the unfortunate implications of making the color black the color of self-interested pragmatism.

              • No problem.

                I’d say that blue is more the self-interested pragmatism, hence its alignment between white and black. White tends towards self-righteousness and legality, rather than pure good most of the time. Green and Red both reflect a libertarian bent, with Green’s aspect capturing the live & let live isolationist/survivalist, do no harm but carry a big gun piece with Red embodying its more libertine do-what-thou wilt elements.

                Black and white both tend towards the legalistic, where the oppressive legal nature of black is opposed to the natural liberties of man embodied by green, while the morally oppressive legal nature of white is opposed to the individual freedoms of personal pleasure.

              • “Black is the only realist, the only color to look and see the world as it is.” “Black’s philosophy is very simple: There’s no one better suited to look after your own interests than you.” Both of those are quotes from a recent Mark Rosewater article about black. The first suggests pragmatism and the second self interest.

              • [Mod voice: Guys, I’ve let this go for a while because it was interesting, but the philosophy behind black as a Magic color is pretty tangential to what this post was actually about, so I’ll ask you not to continue this discussion here.]

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