The Gathering missed a turn with its Warhammer 40,000 crossover
I’ll say it right away: I don’t play Magic. I barely know what it is, despite the fact that I once bought a starter kit when I was an impressionable college student. I know there is mana, I know there are different colors, but I don’t know what they mean.
One thing I do know about Magic: The Gathering, however, is that our very own MTG specialist, Joe Parlock, occasionally drops some great art into TheGamer Slack. I don’t understand what I’m watching most of the time, but I know it looks awesome. Compare it to the Pokemon TCG, which I play more often and actively collect, and the art is on another level, generally speaking.
That’s why I’ve been excited about upcoming Magic crossovers. I’m a Warhammer geek into video games from the Golden Age of Warhammer, and couldn’t wait for certain maps to add a little more spice to the universe that many of us know and love. It’s love in the sense that it’s really rich and alive, not love in the sense that I admire Roboute Gulliman and the space fascists. The Lord of the Rings cards (from an upcoming crossover next year) that I saw in a preview looked great – unlike the Rings of Power, Peter Jackson or even Alan Lee in their scope and design. I love Tolkien more than Warhammer, but I was always thrilled to see certain artists apply that imagination and creativity to 41st millennium ideas.
I have never been so disappointed. About half of the maps use existing Warhammer 40k art, which, while cool, we’ve all seen before. It’s not just the same style, the same characters and the same artists that Warhammer fans see every time they open a codex or fire up a video game, it’s the exact same images that appear in the codexes and rule books.
Bespoke art isn’t much better, I’m afraid to say. Khârn the Traitor is in the midst of battle, surrounded by Necrons who grab him as his ax swings, slicing through metal arms, as explosions fill the background. It’s cool, but I’ve seen it before. Open the Chaos Space Marine Codex and virtually all of the artwork will look the same, even if it’s technically new. I mean no disrespect to the artists when I say this, Kekai Kotaki did a great job, but this was a chance for Magic to really push the boat out and do something different with Games Workshop’s deep universe .
It seems that Games Workshop protects its intellectual property too much. He doesn’t want Magic taking any chances with his precious Space Marines or Tyranids for any reason, while I can only see creative interpretations as positive. The Tyranids are closely based on the xenomorph from Alien – the excellent board game Space Hulk doubles down on that inspiration – so why not let artists explore that side of them, rather than the usual spine-chewing, slashing beasts? the battlefield we see again and again? My only guess is that Games Workshop doesn’t want to disappoint Magic players drawn to creative interpretations of its universe, just so they won’t be impressed by the actual illustrations in its books, but this reading seems a bit uncharitable.
The Mechanicus are my favorite Warhammer faction, their loyalty to the Emperor being slightly influenced by their praise for the Omnissiah and all machines. They are corrupted humans, replacing flesh with robotics at every turn in order to become better. Body horror is downplayed in the Warhammer game, but plays a big role in novelizations like Graham McNeill’s Priests of Mars trilogy. If Magic had only drawn more inspiration from the novels than the rules, the interpretations could have been so much more varied and interesting. I don’t mind Johan Grenier’s Fabrique art, but again, it looks like any art from Codex Adeptus Mechanicus, rather than something original and creative. I’ve been told in good faith that the main sets of Magic: The Gathering currently make Phyrexians, which have “this exact flavor of biomechanical body horror.” Thank you, Mr. Parlock.
The only exception is Swords to Plowshares, which I believe is an existing Magic card to which Warhammer art was added for this crossover. It’s probably to make the whole thing actually, you know, playable, rather than just summoning demons hand after hand like you do in the tabletop game. But the art is smart. It shows a Leman Russ tank with the barrel of its powerful battle cannon covered in fabric, and a header (you know, the spiny front bit of a combine harvester) replaced the sponson-mounted laser cannons. It’s hay harvest, and a Servitor picks up the bales at his side.
This card alone tells more about life in the Imperium than any battle scene or axe-wielding character. It’s the kind of artwork that, in days when I had more time and disposable income (thanks, student loans), I would have painstakingly converted an army around. Weapons and tanks converted into plows and agricultural equipment, which I would then convert back into an army. It’s stuff like this that gives the 41st millennium flavor and personality, and makes it feel like an inhabited universe, rather than just a blank galaxy built to host climactic battles and eternal wars. Some of the other landscape maps (think Mountain and Swamp) have similar world-building elements, but Swords to Plowshares particularly stood out.
To bring him back to Lord of the Rings (Again, Well? Really?), Magic’s Gandalf looks nothing like Ian McKellen. His Balrog doesn’t look like Peter Jackson’s, or Alan Lee’s, or John Howe’s. They are imaginative new interpretations of Tolkien’s words. And I think that’s part of the problem. Games Workshop entered this crossover to sell toy soldiers, and therefore want the artwork to look exactly like their toy soldiers. Of course you can paint them any color you want, but if you walk into a store that has the Be’lakor card, the Dark Master card, you can easily match the artwork to the £90 plastic box on the shelf. Once again, capitalism has triumphed over creativity, and this whole is less well off.
Next: Magic: The Gathering – Warhammer 40,000 Commander Deck Previews: Tyranid Swarm