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Recent Magic sets (and apparently every Magic set moving forward) contains a super rare set of ‘masterpiece’ cards. These form a set within a set and are typically exciting and sought after cards from Magic’s past, as well as something splashy from the new set. The first two masterpiece sets were received positively by the player base.
The third set, the Amonkhet Invoations, were recently revealed to significantly less acclaim.
A lot people simply didn’t like them, and said so. Others pointed to specific parts of the cards they didn’t like, but often different people pointed to different negative aspects. To see why, it’s worth looking at what makes Magic cards work.
Anatomy of a Magic card
Magic cards use a number of subtle and not to subtle cues to tell us what the card it, what it does and also that it’s part of the game of Magic. The Amonkhet Invocations seem to have forgotten this.
Looking at a typical Magic card we see this:
A number of identifiers, whether we recognise them or not, tell us what we are looking at. Two dominant factors, the art and the card text box, draw the eye. Above the first of these is the card name and mana cost. A box in the middle gives the card type and set symbol and separates the art from the text box.
Around these elements lie the piping. The piping surrounds the key information. Force of Will’s is blue, showing us that this is a blue card. Maelstrom Pulse’s piping shows black moving to green, showing is this card is both black and green. Colour identity is important in Magic and piping is used to great effect to convey this.
The card border frames this, blue for Force of Will, and Gold for Maelstrom Pulse. Then we have a black border framing the card.When fanning through cards in your hand, where you can only see part of each, these visual cues are an important way of helping players see what resources they have.
Now look at the Invocation versions:
No, the card is not called Force of Willi. Side by side we can see how every part of the card that could have helped us identify what we are looking at is gone, replaced with a gaudy mess.
The blue colour identity is not shown only by the broken blocks of colour on the sides of the card. The piping is gone, except for a floating blue bar above the card name. The mana symbols have been left uncoloured. The card now has patches rather than borders, giving it no clear visual identity.
I hope you like text
To makes things more difficult the card text has been changed to ALL CAPS. THIS MAKES THE FUNCTION OF THE CARD DIFFICULT TO SEE, ESPECIALLY WHERE THE CARD HAS ENOUGH TEXT TO BREAK OVER SEVERAL LINES. THERE ARE GOOD REASONS TO AVOID USING ALL CAPS ACROSS MULTIPLE LINES OF TEXT AS THE RESULT IS SIGNIFICANTLY LESS READABLE THAN THE SAME TEXT IN MIXED CAPS. You can see that from the side-by-side comparison above.
Usually the font used in a card is not the subject of discussion. With regular magic cards the font does what fonts do: takes a step back and silently lets you read the card. Here the fonts are in your face shouting about how cool and different they are. Too much noise, not enough signal.
One example of an unreadable card is the promotional version of Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. Here is the original card next to the unreadable promo.
Note it’s unreadable on purpose. This is the card ostensibly described in a phyrexian script that (deliberately) none of us can read. Problem? Not really. Every other familiar design element is retained, and crucially the same art is used. Even so, this card was not simply placed into boosters for any player to open. Instead these were distributed to a highly enfranchised group of players. This card forms part of the Judge Promo series, a group of cards sent out to players who volunteer their time and rules knowledge to assist with running organised play events.
The result is a promo card that is generally considered to be cool
Change is a constant
WotC have changed their card faces before. In each case they have been careful to leave enough of the identifiers listed above to make the cards grokkable during the game. The Invocations are the third ‘masterpiece’ series released by Wizards. Here is a card from each of the first two, the Zendikar ‘expeditions’ and the Kaladesh ‘inventions’.
Above we can see that each one changes the card face yet remains identifiable as a Magic card. The art is given more space, not less, than usual. Intelligent use of piping, coloured mana symbols, and readable text all help here. Sadly this intelligence remains missing from the Invocations.
Art doesn’t just happen
We are left with a card that does none of these things. The only positive note, the art, is itself crushed by the gaudy and cluttered card design, reduced from its usual size to make way for the Invocation frame.
The artists deserved better.
They told me to end on a positive note
Something positive to come out of this may just be an appreciation for how well WotC normally does with card designs. No, really. When they get things right we don’t notice the design elements separately but rather get to enjoy the effect of them all working together. With the mehsterpieces we can see what happens when all of these elements are identified and carefully removed. It’s not pretty. From the other examples above through we can see how much leeway there is to do interesting twists on card design while still retaining an essential magic-ness about the card.
Let’s hope WotC has learned this lesson too.