Artful Breakdown: The Compleated Walkers

Aaron Radney • February 22, 2023

Good morning, and welcome back to the Artful Breakdown, the series that takes a look at the art of Magic: the Gathering cards, then dives deep into the strategies, tricks, techniques, and decisions that go into making the fantastic art for the game. I'm Aaron, a fantasy illustrator myself and a general lover of the craft of creating images. It's my job to help folks take a moment to slow down and appreciate the art and artists that bring this game to life and show some secrets you may not always catch at card size.

To that end, rather than chasing the relentless set release schedule, I thought we'd take a look and explore some more details of the faction design of Phyrexia: All Will Be One. With that in mind, it felt wrong to move on without discussing one of the darkest elements of the set: the 5 compleated planeswalkers painted by Chase Stone.

A Compleat Disaster

Let's step back in time a bit to when the first images for this set were coming out and we were teased with this poster and that we'd lose five of these 'walkers to Phyrexia.

Images of the 10 Planeswalkers featured in ONE. The poster hinted that 5 of the walkers would be transformed by Phyrexia.

Speculation was rampant, and then in the lore the planeswalker strike team's attempt to breach New Phyrexia's planar barrier failed miserably (I took my own trip to Phyrexia to study them for this article, and let me tell you, that barrier is no joke). Shortly after, we got a look at the compleated 'walkers in their terrifying Phyrexian glory.

A lot of folks immediately latched onto the idea that these 'walkers were referencing older planeswalker cards, and while some clearly were, that wasn't nearly as interesting to me as how Chase Stone clearly fits the 'walkers in with the various factions of Phyrexia. It's almost as if the different factions are formed by different strains of the phyresis disease, and we can see that on display. We can see on the card Noxious Assault that the alignment of the creature that infects a person can impact the course of the illness, but is it solely that or does the creature's own mana alignment influence things as well? More study is clearly required. 

Nahiri, the Unforgiving by Chase Stone

Nahiri, standing atop a ruined mechanical landscape. Her eyes glow reddish orange in the dingy green and her arms have been transformed by lithomancy and phyrexian influence into her trademark stone blades that flow a sickly yellow orange with heat.

It was astonishing to me I didn't immediately catch that Chase Stone did all the compleated 'walker arts. He's a highly versatile member of the game's roster, with 14 planeswalkers and a myriad of legendaries under his belt. Chase has a great facility at bringing life to characters with his strong sense of lighting and drama.

He puts that on display with Nahiri here who's a bit of an outlier when trying to determine her faction, which, actually is a clue in and of itself. For starters, we know it wasn't Norn's phyrexian strain that turned her. She lacks the white dentition and red sinew elements common even to Ajani's new getup, and instead we see separated skin revealing glowing energy beneath. These are elements we see in the red phyrexian faction on cards like Bladegraft Aspirant and Magmatic Sprinter. Coupled with the "weapons for hands" motif, and it's pretty clear that Nahiri is suffering from a mild case of red strain phyresis. It might be curable if we hadn't clearly seen that Nahiri's Sacrifice means this is is more her body animated than anything else. 

Nissa, Ascended Animist and Lukka, Bound to Ruin by Chase Stone

Lukka transformed by Phyrexia into a hulking monster with massive claws, modified mechanical legs and some sort of similarly modified predator at his side.

These two have a textbook case of green phyresis, so I'm grouping them together. Lukka has legs that clearly mirror the design sensibilities of Armored Scrapgorger and green ichor that fuels the body a la Evolved Spinoderm. He leans into the clearly defined ferocity of the vicious swarm, and the combination of digitally painted and 3D elements hammer home the unnatural evolution and heavy modification present in Lukka's phyrexian transformation. Chase even talks a bit about the challenges and decision-making on his instagram.

Image of Nissa, compleated by Phyrexia. She has four arms with copper seeming to make up most of the metal parts. She's seen centered and terrifyig as she walks through a landscape of devastation.

Nissa, meanwhile, is one of the cards that references an older version: Nissa, Who Shakes the World. Fitting, as we'll see her as the catalyst for Norn's spell with Realmbreaker on the card All Will Be One. It makes me wonder if Nissa's power had a hand in growing the tree itself. Nissa's phyresis is surprisingly delicate in some ways considering Vorinclex's swarm. She's lacking in the ferocious claws and hulking physicality and instead leans into the coppery elements that suffuse the green phyrexian faction, emulating roots and calling to mind, of all things, Glissa's own fall to the phyrexians. We also see this unifying motif in Paladin of Predation and some of the phyrexian elves.

Vraska, Betrayal's Sting by Chase Stone

Vraska transformed into a much more clearly gorgon form by her phyrexian transformation. Her body is more snakelike with a stinging tail and her pose references her first art by Aleski Briclot

There's a great combination of the Borg and HG Giger in the black-aligned faction, and Vraska's new look is rocking a lot of that. It's callback to our first encounter with her is great, as Stone does a solid job of paying homage to the energy of the Aleksi Briclot's original. We can see the chitinous armored arthropod design of her new form on full display, almost like an exoskeleton. The same thing holds true in the art of cards like Sheoldred's Headcleaver and Vraan, Executioner Thane. These design elements make it clear that even if she shows up on Norn's Decree, Vraska is heavily tied to and was possibly even compleated by the black-aligned strain of phyresis. 

Jace, the Perfected Mind by Chase Stone

Image of Jace floating over a red mechanical hellscape. His hands are spread wide emulating his Jace the Mindscupltor card. Cable/tentacle appendages flow from his body and end in camera/eye stalks in the style of the blue phyrexians.

Of the three 'walkers whose cards sort of reference a previous incarnation, Jace's is probably the most tenuous in its connection to Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

What's not tenuous is his connection to blue mana and his compleation by a blue strain of phyresis. The cable/tentacles ending in camera eyes is the giveaway here. Across Jin-Gitaxis' faction, this is the common theme that ties them together almost as much as Norn's motifs of teeth and flayed flesh. Just look at Unctus, Grand Metatect, Tamiyo's Immobilizer, Mercurial Spelldancer, and Aspirant's Ascent, among others. The cable tentacles are an incredibly strong visual signifier of the desire to see everything in exquisite, excruciating, effusive detail. All the better to seek out and reject failings and revel in the sight of perfection. But there's also a utilitarian element to them. They're a function of what the blue faction sees as a need rather than Jin-Gitaxis demanding conformity, as those elements don't show up in either of his current cards. 

The Conclusion of this Great Work

We can tell what faction the planeswalkers are  fairly easily by their colors, but that's a surface-level reading. Even without the mana value and frame, Chase worked hard to provide clear visual language to tie the 'walkers into the factions. It further defines the unusual effects the colors of mana have on phyresis, whether it's through the disease itself or how it reacts to a planeswalker steeped in a specific color. It also illustrates the incredible power Phyrexia has to twist these characters into familiar yet still alien versions of themselves as well as a clear testament to the work that goes into ensuring the style guide for each set is unique and that art directors like Ovidio Cartagena ensure that all the artists are working on the same page with clear communication. 

That's all for now. I know this was a bit different than usual, so let me know how you felt about this one and tell me what faction of phyrexians you'd like to be completed by in the comments. Also, you can check out past articles from me here.

Now if you'll excuse me I've got to go clean my keyboard. I've made Steady Progress on things today  but there's this weird oily residue around the keys... it's probably nothing.