Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Aven Flock (Odyssey, 2001)

Another week, another underwhelming creature from Magic's first decade.

There's not really a lot worth saying about the card itself. It should go without saying that no sane person would willingly play this, at least in constructed. A 2/3 with Flying might be steep even at a cheaper price, and at a 4W it's just another piece of cardboard that might once have been feasible as part of a Limited pool but will almost certainly never again see the light of day.

This card came out during a period when I wasn't playing nor paying attention to the game. According to Wikipedia, the Odyssey block was a self-contained storyline set on the continent of Otaria and featuring a group of new characters and races scrambling after a MacGuffin called the Mirari. Which makes about as much sense as most Magic storylines - well, I kid. Magic is usually pretty good at story these days, they've got a hotshot creative team working behind the scenes and they've learned a lot of lessons from poorly-received blocks like Odyssey and Kamigawa, to say nothing of the clusterfuck that was the imploding Weatherlight saga. Which is to say: this was apparently a poorly-received set, at least partially because the magical quest storyline was at odds with the actual gameplay themes - graveyard focus, discard-heavy, an emphasis on ideas like insanity and dementia, alongside weird mechanics like Madness (something that even a dim-bulb like me can tell was probably never going to work the way they wanted it to). The game has gotten a lot better at making gameplay and storyline jibe, which partially explains its resurgence in recent years.

The first thing that jumps out at me about the card - yes, even more than the fantastic "Bird Soldier" in the type-line - is the art by Greg & Tim Hildebrandt. I hadn't given any thought to the Hildebrandts in a long time. If you're younger than me you might not even know who the Hildebrandts were, but for multiple generations of fantasy fans the Hildebrandts were absolutely definitive. They provided the authoritative looks for Tolkien's Middle Earth (and all the epic fantasy that followed in its wake) for many years, before even Rankin-Bass released their TV version of The Hobbit in 1977. Even if you don't know their names, you might still be familiar with their work - check out here, here, and here for a few of the more famous images. The Tolkien calendars in which these images first appeared are still popular. Chances are good that you can walk into any Barnes & Noble across the country and find their illustrations peering out of one or more editions of Tolkienana.

They didn't just do Tolkien, of course. They even did some Marvel art in the nineties, for a trading card set if I recall correctly. Even given the gimmicky nature of comic book trading cars in the nineties, they still produced some handsome images, like this and this (the latter being perhaps the most famous of their Marvel pieces, you still see it pop up here and there). That they did some Magic art is cool, even though I know that Wizards of the Coast hasn't historically had some of the most artist-friendly policies. (I have no idea what Wizards' current deals are, but considering the number of talented artists who work almost exclusively for the company I can't imagine it's not better than it was in the mid-nineties).

I didn't realize - or had forgotten - that Tim Hildebrandt died in 2006. That would explain their absence from the contemporary fantasy scene. Nothing can diminish their achievement in setting the look of epic fantasy for multiple generations of fans.

(Worth noting - even if you're not into fantasy, the Brothers Hildebrandt also created the iconic first poster for an obscure sci-fi movie you may have heard of at some point.)

No comments :