The Art of Design, Shadowfist-style

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Home > Design Notes > Art and its influence on card design
[posted 1 Jul 2003]

This article started out as a reasonably well-focused attempt to relate a couple of anecdotes about art and how it influenced card design during Throne War playtesting. But there were just too many things to say, so it's grown a bit :) Let's start with an overview of how card art is created; if you're familiar with this process, skip to the stories below.

How Card Art Is Created

First of all, you need someone to coordinate with the dozens of artists who'll be working on the set. CCG companies typically hire a person to act as art director, or artist liaison as Ed Beard likes to call it. That person's job is to coordinate production of the art with the various artists—assign pieces, provide background material, coordinate the delivery schedules, and approve/reject the finished art. Sometimes they also handle contracts and negotiations, sometimes that's done by a business guy. The art director might also scan and color-correct the finished pieces, or not, depending on the details of the arrangements.

CDCA Scientist
CDCA Scientist, Year of the Dragon. Art copyright 2000 Stephen Snyder. Used with permission.

We see the exterior of a futuristic building, about 3-4 stories high. From one of the upper stories, we see an explosion blowing out a window, more or less toward our point of view. At the forefront of the explosion, as if he's been propelled out of the window, we see a middle-aged male in a very singed lab coat flying toward us, his arms and legs bent a bit backward by the force of the blow. His glasses/goggles are flying off of his head, his lab coat is undone and flapping behind him. But his expression is of pure satisfaction; in one hand he's clutching either a beaker with a brightly colored liquid, or a sheaf of notepaper. (his discovery) He's not even thinking of how much it will hurt when he lands....

Most descriptions aren't anywhere near this detailed, but I had this image in my head of what this card should look like, so I wrote it all down. And Stephen Snyder nailed it—my favorite piece from Year of the Dragon.

Next, the artist needs to have some idea of what's needed for each piece he/she's assigned. The art director uses a short writeup called an "art description" to tell the artist what a card should look like. The descriptions range from one sentence to a long paragraph, depending on what's needed to get a particular piece "right" (any truly important details must be written in the description, I learned that the hard way). The artist also gets the card title, type, and faction along with basics like the size and shape of the finished card. The art director also provides background material; for example, if a card requires that Gao Zhang appear in the art (like Sinister Accusations), that artist gets a look at the Gao Zhang character card. The artist isn't completely bound by the description, but the more he/she strays from it, the greater the chance that the final piece will be rejected.

Flying Sleeves
Flying Sleeves, Throne War. Art copyright 1996 Mark Tedin. Used with permission.

Evil Lotus Eunuch in robes with arms outstretched. His sleeves extend many feet past his hands and are strangling a Dragon hero.

If you don't have something very specific in mind, it's best to leave the description simple and let the artist do his/her thing. This particular piece by Mark Tedin was originally commissioned for Flashpoint in 1996, but wasn't used until Z-Man printed Throne War in 2000.

When the art comes in, the art director reviews it, then passes it along to the boss (in this case, Zev). If they're both happy, the piece is accepted and the artist gets paid*. They might send the piece back to have some adjustments made, or in rare cases a piece gets rejected outright.

* Daedalus developed quite a reputation among the artists for slow or no payment. Keep that in mind if you want to talk about Shadowfist with artists from the Daedalus sets, it might explain the bad attitude :)

After the art is accepted, it's scanned, then corrected if necessary (color corrections, sharpening, etc. If you've worked with digital photos then it's similar, and if you haven't then you probably don't care anyway :). The scanned art is then cropped to size and placed in the appropriate template for its faction and card type. Voila, a card blank is born, ready for text.


Timing is Everything

One more sidetrack, then it's on to the real story. Before we get to art and how it influences card design (and vice versa), you need to know a little about the playtest process at Z-Man. Most of the bigger companies like Wizards and FRPG do advance (in-house, usually) playtesting, so the cards that go to the at-large playtesters are pretty much set. They expect to print those cards, with maybe a few tweaks based on the at-large playtest results. Those companies often have art commissioned, and sometimes even delivered, before at-large playtesting starts.

At Z-Man, there was no separate in-house playtest. Instead, we used a system where the at-large playtesters saw and tested a wide variety of cards, and we planned to cut a fair number of those cards before print (or punt them to later sets if they were looking good). Art wasn't commissioned until as late as possible in the cycle, so we could make a good estimate of which cards would survive playtest and see print. That's great from a card testing perspective since it gives you more time to refine cards, but it really puts the pressure on the art side since there's very little time to recover if the art doesn't quite work out. And there are lots of reasons why it might not work—sometimes the card text changes after the art is commissioned, sometimes you just don't like the piece when it comes in, and sometimes the artist takes a few more liberties with the description than you can reconcile with the card title or its text...


The Art of Card Design vs. The Design of Card Art

In theory, the route from card design to art design is a one-way street—the card design and name determines the art. Someone familiar with the card's chrome writes an art description that emphasizes what the card is, or what it does, and the artist puts something like that onto paper for you.

In practice, the art description is never quite that airtight (nor do you generally want it to be, since you'd like the artist to have room to do, well, art, with his/her own take on the theme) so the art you get back rarely matches what you imagined when you wrote the description. Sometimes that's better and sometimes not, but either way, it turns out that the art can shape the card, too. When you finally see the art, you might want to change the card's ability or its title to better fit the art.

Another avenue open for art to influence design is the use of "leftovers." Art that was commissioned, accepted and paid for on previous sets but not used for whatever reason is just begging to be used in the current set—besides the fact that it's already in your hands, there's a sizeable monetary incentive to use what you've got rather than commissioning more. With that art as inspiration, you might try to design a card to fit it, which sometimes is easier said than done.

Of course, I have some examples and stories for you, that being the point of this article :)


Art in the Driver's Seat

When the art came in early, we had plenty of time to think about tweaking the card text and playtesting any tweak we made. But the majority of the art for Throne War didn't come in until just after playtest wrapped up. That's a very busy period, getting everything ready to go to the printers, so we didn't have time to test any fine-tuning. When the art really didn't match the card, we only had two choices—scrap the card, or tweak it without playtesting it.


"He needs to kick more ass."

Dr. John Haynes started life as a 3 cost / 4 Fighting utility character along the lines of Serena Ku. He was an idea from the old Deadalus archives; we placed him in Throne War since he appeared in the Feng Shui supplement Thorns of the Lotus (his character isn't described, but he "writes" the sidebars in the book). Daedalus even had an art description written, so we used that too. His original ability didn't survive playtest, but the art description did, more or less.

Dr. John Haynes
Dr. John Haynes, Throne War. Art copyright 2000 Dan Frazier. Used with permission.

A white man in simple ancient Chinese garb and wearing a wicker hat balances a notebook and pen on his knee while he spies on/observes something in the distance. He's packing a pistol (maybe he's holding it) just in case things go wrong.

Admire the hat, even as it kicks your butt.

Dan Frazier sent an advance sketch of Dr. John fairly early in the testing period. That was unusual; most of the artists didn't send sketches (or, to be more precise, we didn't see them if they did). Zev forwarded it to us, and we all reacted the same way: "He needs to kick more ass." The hat, the gun, the look—Dan had hit the art description just right (this is one of those cases where the piece comes in, and looks better than you imagined). Well, except for one thing: Daedalus described Dr. John as a black man, but somewhere along the line that got dropped from the art description, so it's not Dan's fault. And anyway we didn't want to quibble with that hat :)

Dan's sketch gave us a reason to change Dr. John from a utility character to a top-notch hitter. The art was just too good for someone with a supporting role; Dr. John needed to be a star. So we beefed up his Fighting and gave him a more powerful set of abilities to be worthy of that hat. Dr. John's design is another story [someday, that will be a link to the next design article], but I think he lives up to his artwork now. And Dan's finished artwork was everything the sketch set it up to be, which makes sense, since Dan works by painting on top of his advance sketches :)


Death of Death of a Thousand Blades

Death of a Thousand Blades
Death of a 1000 Blades, Throne War. Unreleased playtest version 3

We see a burning Pagoda-style temple or similar structure in the b.g. while in the f.g. we see a a gloating, laughing Chinese Eunuch sorcerer projecting sharp bursts of magical energy (maybe a bit like lightning or "knives" of energy) at a group of modern day commandos. The commandos are getting the worst of it, writhing in pain, dropping their weapons. I think the sorcerer's other hand should be outstretched toward the Pagoda to indicate that the burning of the building and the magical energy are all related. (He's not pointing at the structure, but seems to be drawing power from the building).
One of the playtest incarnations of Death of a Thousand Blades. The main complaint about this one was the potential to extend games and be abusable in a deck designed around it. And yeah, it's supposed to be Thousand not 1000 but it didn't quite fit and I was too lazy to squish it today :)

Death of a Thousand Blades was a card we struggled with in playtest. We wanted the Lotus to get two new "signature" events in Throne War, one being Die!!! and the other being Thousand Blades. We started with a card idea found in the Daedalus archives, but Blades never quite gelled; the effect oscillated between too weak and too strong in its various playtest incarnations. The nail in the coffin was the art: I can't show it to you, since Zev rejected it and it wasn't paid for as far as I know, but it just didn't come out quite right. "Well, hmm, I guess we could...maybe if we cropped it like this...or we could... Nevermind. This card is causing too many problems. Cut it." It's doubly unfortunate, because the only option at that point in the cycle was to replace Thousand Blades with a reprint that was also appearing in Year of the Dragon, and the goal had been to keep the reprints in Throne War down to a minimum (only cards that we thought people would want high multiples of, like Pocket Demon and Evil Twin). [the old schoolers will ask "So then why the heck did you reprint Kar Fai?" Even if you know the story you still won't like it, but maybe I'll write that one up someday...]


Seeing Double

Martin Fitzpatrick

Martin Fitzpatrick, Throne War. Unreleased playtest version 3. Art copyright 2000 Lissanne Lake. Used with permission.Red-headed Irish man from waist up. Wearing Purist robes (see Rhys Engel art ref), head turned a little to left, one eyebrow up (give him a bored-but-sneaky arch-villain look). If the piece needs a location, set him in a modern or high-tech room, perhaps with laboratory gear. He is either holding his Purist mask or it is resting in front of him (see same art ref for mask). The same person to do this one should do Martin Fitzpatrick (b) see description below.


Martin Fitzpatrick, Throne War. Unreleased playtest version 3. Art copyright 2000 Lissanne Lake. Used with permission.Same as Architect version, except his hair is almost entirely hidden under a Chinese skullcap (a few red curls are escaping) and he is wearing ornate Eunuch robes. His head is turned a little to the right, and he has the other eyebrow up, but otherwise a similar expression. See Martin Fitzpatrick (a) for more details..
The last playtest incarnations of Martin, with the art cropped about how we intended him to look. The uncropped pieces appear as Hermes and Malachi in Dark Future.

Martin Fitzpatrick was intended to be something a bit different—a Character that appeared in two versions, one Lotus and one Architect (Purist, specifically, but that was before the Purists made their big break). Martin was a double agent, trying to work both sides of the Lotus-Purist connection. That wasn't the only odd thing about Martin, he was designed as a type of hoser card as well, but that's another story [yet another hook to a page that hasn't been written yet].

The life of a double agent is short and usually ends badly, and Martin is no exception. The art description specified two versions, one dressed in ancient Chinese garb, and the other in Purist regalia. They were not supposed to be twins, they were the same person in different clothes. But the description didn't explicitly say "not twins," and what came back was one twin talking to another in each piece (like two ends of a conversation). Yes, we could have altered the chrome on the card to fit a "twins" concept rather than a double agent, or we could have messed around with the art, but the card design was potentially unbalanced, we didn't have much time, and we had a few too many Uniques in the set already, so chop! both Martins dropped out...

On the bright side, the art was certainly usable, and appeared on Hermes and Malachi in Dark Future. For you trivia buffs, Lissanne used long-time player Andrew Davidson as the model for the art.

Names Changed to Protect the Innocent

Sometimes a change to name or tag is all you have time for...


It's Lonely Out Here

Desolate Ridge
Desolate Ridge, Throne War. Art copyright 2000 Paul "Prof" Herbert. Used with permission.

A couple of concepts to choose from; your choice or the artists: (a) stark scene of a high cliff with a bare tree perched on the edge (like an Ansel Adams photograph) (b) dark night with a cliff backlit by a lightning bolt across the sky behind it (c) as (b), but for comedy, add a guy in the foreground with his hair standing on end, maybe looking a bit singed (this may be hard to do without making it too cartoonish though).

My bad. I forgot to say "lightning" in option (a), and the Ansel Adams bit didn't convey the feel I was looking for, either.

Desolate Ridge was playtested as Lightning Ridge, which was a wonderful name for the ability. I wrote the art description for it, and discovered something the hard way: if an element is essential to a piece, don't leave it out of the description, even if you think it's obvious from the card title. I had a hard time coming up with a really catchy art idea for this one, so we ended up sending three optional descriptions, and asking the artist to choose. My mistake was that the last of these three descriptions didn't explicitly say that lightning should be shown in the piece. And of course you know which description the artist chose to work from :) The finished piece didn't really match that description either, but that didn't matter when the deadline to start the print run in time for GenCon was looming. We liked the mechanic and wanted the card to stay in the set but there was no time to get new art, so we renamed it Desolate Ridge and went to print that way. Lightning Ridge would've been a better name, though. Sorry :(


One Little, Two Little, Three Little Emperors...

The Emperor
The Emperor, Throne War. Art copyright 2000 Carisa Swenson. Used with permission.

Thin, weary looking 65-yr-old Chinese man in sumptuous imperial robes sits on the Dragon Throne. He looks bored, and tired. Behind him, to the right of the throne, we see Gao Zhang with a smug look of satisfaction on his face. Gao's hands are folded together inside his robe sleeves (so we don't see his hands). Same artist should do The False Emperor.

Of the three, The Emperor came closest to what we actually wanted. The guy in the back is recognizable as Gao Zhang. The throne didn't match, but hey, he's the Emperor, he can have as many thrones as he wants.

The original plot for Throne War started with a series of switcheroos involving the Emperor—first, the Lotus replace him with a demon, then the Ascended replace the demon with their own False Emperor. The art descriptions for those three cards tried to reflect that by indicating three slightly different versions of the Emperor: one old and frail, one tinged blue, and one younger and hearty. And of course their faces would have to look the same, so the intent was to have a single artist do all three pieces. Somehow that part got lost, and the three were assigned to different artists. Bummer.

Demon Emperor
Demon Emperor, Throne War. Art copyright 2000 Mark Poole. Used with permission.

He should look like The Emperor, but stronger, more vital and robust, and with a slight bluish tinge to his skin (enough to be obvious, but not enough to yell BLUE at us). Dressed in fine yellow robe, he's in Gao Zhang's room, peering at a large book open on a stand. There is a diagram inscribed on the floor, with some energy beginning to form in the middle. Perhaps we can see other demons starting to form/come through this area. He is acting sneaky, secretly summoning more demons.

We didn't have space to print a tag line to explain why the Demon Emperor didn't quite look like the Emperor. At least he was blue :)

The Demon Emperor definitely came in blue, but more of an Emperor of Demons rather than one taking the place of the Emperor. We had already planned that he would be a shapechanging demon, so it really didn't matter that he looked nothing at all like the Emperor. Really. That's what we said, over and over. Sigh.

Oliver Chen (commissioned as The False Emperor)
Oliver Chen, Throne War. Art copyright 2000 Kenneth Waters. Used with permission.

A human employed by the Ascended to impersonate the ailing Emperor. His problem is that he looks too strong and robust! Give him a concealed weapon he's slipping out of his sleeves: most un-Emperor like! Same artist should paint "The Emperor." Either focus on him alone, or he could be sitting on The Dragon Throne, slouched in a flippant sort of way (maybe even one leg over the arm of the throne) with a stern looking eunuch standing behind the throne, to one side.

The lounging part came out right, but not the "looks like the emperor" part. Rename, print, fix story later (much later...)

When the False Emperor came in, he was lounging on the throne as requested, but didn't look enough like the Emperor to be an imposter. We couldn't get away with a simple tag line to patch it up because there was no room on the card, so the plotline for the double switcheroo was scrapped from the backstory. But we didn't want to drop the card mechanic entirely so the card was renamed Oliver Chen, Pledged Saboteur, and the rest is ancient Chinese history...

Hindsight is 20:20

Digging into the historical archives, it turns out that Daedalus changed card names more often than Z-Man does, but it happens a lot in both companies. If you ever talk to one of the artists about a specific piece, it helps to have a copy of the card to make sure they know what you're talking about; there's no guarantee that the name they received with the art description is anything like the name the card is printed with. Here's just a sampling:




It's Here, Let's Use It

Most times in the construction of a set, you commission more art than you know for certain you will use, just in case a card gets cut late in the cycle or an artist doesn't come through on deadline (which doesn't happen that often, but often enough that it must be planned for). But it's usually only a few pieces, because the artists get paid whether the piece is printed or not, and your budget isn't infinite.

Since the art is already paid for and you have it in hand, there's a strong incentive to use that piece in a future set. In Netherworld and Flashpoint, for example, a lot of art was originally intended for the Combat in Kowloon and 2nd edition Shadowfist sets that never materialized, and some is leftover from Limited Edition. Here are just a few:

Pieces done for Combat in Kowloon:

There's nothing Dragon-specific about Kar Fai's Crib, since it was originally done for a feng shui site called Temple Street.

Mr. Big

The infamous ears on Mr. Big's shadow don't mean that he's a transformed anything. He may have latent demonic tendencies, though.

Many people have noticed the little pointy ears in Mr. Big's shadow, and speculated that he must be a transformed animal of some kind. That may be the rationalization, but the art was originally done for a card called Lord of the Underworld. The card design I found in the Daedalus archives was for a Hood Edge, so Underworld was meant to mean criminal underworld, but I think the artist took it as demonic underworld, hence the pointy ears in the shadow.

Jimmy Wai was originally named Sneezy Teng.
Eugene Fo was originally named Happy Cheung.
Chimp Shack was Construction Shacks.

Sneezy and Happy were two Lotus goons in the Combat in Kowloon story, and the construction site was where they had a hideout. (and just to head it off, there is no record of Doc, Sleepy, Grumpy or any of the other dwarfs appearing in the story).

Some pieces done originally for Limited Edition that ended up in Netherworld:

The first version of Kan Li was printed as Shinobu Yashida.
An alternate Sinister Priest illustration became Jueding Bao-Fude.

I thought these last two were notable, since Z-Man also ended up with two versions of some pieces through odd circumstances...

Flashpoint itself generated leftovers—you've seen several now in Z-Man editions, one of the most recent being Fortress Omega in Dark Future. That piece was done by Mark Tedin in 1996 along with the other Arcanotowers, and was originally titled "Arcanotower 69" (I'll leave that one alone, no comments from the peanut gallery please) It works quite well as Fortress Omega, since there wasn't anything in the art that tied it to the ancient China juncture.

Cutting Loose Ends vs. Raven Li
Raven Li, Netherworld 2. Art copyright 2001 Nene Thomas. Used with permission. Cutting Loose Ends, Netherworld 2. Art copyright 2001 Mark Poole. Used with permission.
It's like a shell game sometimes. Femme Fatale becomes Cutting Loose Ends, then later becomes Raven Li, a different leftover piece gets pulled in to be Cutting Loose Ends... (link to Néné's website required for permission to show her art)

In an interesting twist of art and title, Néné Thomas' 1996 piece called "Femme Fatale," which was intended for a Daedalus card called "Cutting Loose Ends," ended up as the character Raven Li in Netherworld 2. Cutting Loose Ends also appears in that set, although with Throne War leftover art from Mark Poole in place of Néné's.

Another of Néné's older works was intended for Combat in Kowloon but finally made an appearance as Poison Thorns in 10,000 Bullets.

And of course there have been leftovers from Throne War that have popped up since. Ravenous Devourer used art that was intended for a different beast in Throne War but became available because of the odd circumstances obliquely mentioned up above (bonus points if you can guess which card in Throne War the Devourer might have been).

The Man With No Name has also been sneaking in at regular intervals. No, not the guy wearing Freddy Krueger's cast-off sweater in Netherworld 2—the original concept for a card with that name (heh, sorry) had been as a promo card for the Secret War Society. He was cast as a nameless hero who secretly steps in on any side in order to keep a balance of sorts in the War. He was to be printed in seven versions, one for each faction. We pushed this idea too late in playtest, though—some of his incarnations were too good, and others too weak, and we didn't have time to reconcile them. And playtesters also brought up concerns about availability and power level of promos, so that idea was scrapped, but not before Mark Poole had created the art for all seven incarnations. You've seen the Man With No Name in many sets since that time, but true to his concept, you didn't know who he was...

There are a lot more stories waiting to be told (and many more from the newer sets that I'm blissfully unaware of, I'm sure), but in the interest of actually publishing this before the decade is out, I'll stop here. Thanks to Zev for allowing me to post this peek behind the scenes!

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