Welcome back to The Artful Breakdown, the series that takes a look at the art of Magic: the Gathering cards and analyzes the strategies, tricks, techniques, and decisions that go into making it. I'm Aaron, a fantasy illustrator myself, and it's my pleasure to be your guide to the interesting elements, homages, and stylistic flair that you might miss at card size.
With the year moving on and a number of articles for March of the Machine behind me, I'm confident looking to what comes next. At the moment, that's The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle Earth.
A Not Unexpected Journey
Magic's done a number of universes beyond offerings at this point. Few I've been sold on. This, however, feels about as natural as visiting grandma and grandpa. Considering Richard Garfield drew heavily on Dungeons and Dragons when creating Magic, it kind of is. When you consider that Dungeons and Dragons grew out of war gamers who wanted to reenact Tolkein's battles, (or so the story goes), one could argue Tolkein's world is the spiritual grandparent of Magic: the Gathering itself!
Before we really get going though, a bit of a disclaimer: I haven't actually read The Lord of the Rings. The books have always been on my list, but I haven't gotten around to reading them yet and I wanted to do that before watching the films. I've picked up things by osmosis, but I'm not going to be your source for deep cuts and cool references. However, I am eager to jump into talking a little about something that's clearly bringing an immense amount of joy to folks. There's a lot to analyze and we absolutely will, but today I want to focus on just a single card that caught my attention to kick us off.
You Cannot Pass!
Now, I am aware Ian McKellan modified this line in the film and this is the actual line from the book. The battle with the Balrog has been riffed on and memed countless times in fandom and from other artists. Here Leonardo Borazio gives us an interesting take on the moment.
Leonardo Borazio is new to the game, literally: this is his first revealed piece for Magic. Other clients of his include Ubisoft Reflections, Ubisoft Paris, Mooncolony (Blizzard), and Netease. His portfolio favors texture and brushwork heavily in a way that'll be very familiar to you if you spend any serious amount of time looking at people who do high level concept art online. Most of his work is pretty classic fantasy and sci-fi subjects and he brings that sensibility to bear well here. That same use of strong brushwork to carry a piece is on display, but this image does a better job of showing off his skills as a storyteller than some others.
Type "Gandalf faces the Balrog" into google and along with scenes from the movies you will get just a litany of images of this scene. I know, I did it. Many focus on the size of the monster and emphasize the difference between him and Gandalf to make it seem the wizard is at a disadvantage. Most use a low angle composition to accentuate this. Borazio doesn't do that!
Instead, he uses a top-down composition that highlights the power of Gandalf. Compositions like this usually make us feel disconnected from the action going on. We can see the whole picture and have perspective, but we can do nothing to influence the moment, and we don't really need to. Gandalf is solid and in control. This contrasts with the angled body of the falling Balrog and hammers the message home. It's also handled by some of the structural and compositional choices. The red lines indicate the implied structure and perspective of the piece. It's slightly tilted, which makes us feel off-balance. That's contrasted with Gandalf's wide, rooted stance.
The bright energy lines also help highlight the importance of the Balrog in this scene by helping establish it as a focal point since Borazio isn't using size as the distinguishing factor as much here. It also directs the energy of the piece heavily downward. The light also adds a needed bit of needed pop in my opinion. The image is a little dark overall. It also utilizes a very classic technique in composition by relying on light to create points of interest.
We look at the bright light surrounding the Balrog and specifically its mouth first, largely because we're following the light source on Gandalf's staff. The line of action of the character's body is also a line of fire flowing down. Borazio brings us back up using the shining blade Gandalf carries to pull us back into the piece and keep our eye from wandering away.
There's also a bit of stealth storytelling here. We know Gandalf looks like he wins in this moment but that he will end up falling into the pit to continue to do battle, and this is probably a big part of the reason for the high-angle composition. Often they're a warning something bad is about to happen. They show up right before the bottom drops out. We subtly recognize that, leading to a situation that pulls double duty. The high-angled composition hints that this moment won't last. For those of us who know that going in, it builds anticipation for what comes next. For those that don't, it's an extra gut punch that breaks the hearts of us and the fellowship. Either way, we're powerless to change the fact that it won't last for our wizard friend here.
This was one of the first images I saw for set, and I've been more and more impressed since. At the time of writing, the full spoiler isn't out, but what's there is fantastic! It's difficult to decide exactly what to talk about next, but I do have some things planned. Until then, feel free to tell me about your favorite arts in the set and what you're excited about. I'd love to hear it.
If you'd like to support more of my own writing and art-making, please feel free to join me on patreon if seeing an illustrator's artistic process interests you or you want to support me outside of the articles I write here. If not, just letting me know your thoughts on these and sharing is wonderful as well. I'll see you again on the next Artful Breakdown.