Commander Canvas: Ovidio Cartagena

Nick Wolf • April 7, 2023

Ghoul's Feast and Hedgewitch's Mask by Ovidio Cartagena

The artists creating the illustrations on Magic: the Gathering cards aren't just doing so in a vacuum.

Many of the artists are players themselves, and beyond that, some art directors are also avid players. Last time around in Commander Canvaswe chatted with Tyler Day (a.k.a. Rope Arrow), creator of the "Draw Your Hand" Secret Lair and pilot of a Kalain, Reclusive Painter list. This week, Senior Art Director for Wizards of the Coast and veteran Commander player Ovidio Cartagena stops by to talk about a commander near and dear to his heart.

Archaeomancer's Map, by Ovidio Cartagena

From Teacher to Art Director

It likely comes as no surprise that the first thing about Magic that attracted Ovidio Cartagena's interest was the art, but what's less likely is how he discovered it.

When Cartegena first picked up the game in 2002, he was teaching art and English. Like many, he heard about Magic for the first time at school, but unlike many, it was as a teacher. "One of my students introduced me to the game and I absolutely loved the art," he said. "I knew of the game back then but didn't know how to play it. Of course, what drew me to it was the awesome art pieces."

That's what solidified in him a love for Magic more than 20 years ago. The art transported him to another place, allowing him to imagine what has happening in these far-flung fantasy worlds, and he was hooked. One piece of art in particular he remembers fondly is Dan Frazier's "orchid" Swamp, which first appeared in 2002 in Mercadian Masques and has seen several reprints, most recently in Commander Anthology Volume II.

Swamp, by Dan Frazier

Cartagena has an artist's eye, but it was as a fan that he began collecting the game in earnest a decade later. "I couldn't pick up the game back in 2002, because I couldn't afford it, but when I saw a Nicol Bolas illustration at Walmart 10 years later, I finally took the plunge and started collecting Magic seriously," said Cartagena.

It was the "awesome" art direction for Journey Into Nyx that sealed the deal for him, he said. "I thought the quality of those pieces was sublime, but also felt like I would never be able to get to that level."

Fast forward another ten years, and Cartagena's certainly at that level. His first work for Magic as an artist appeared on Mystery Booster Test Card Golgari Death Swarm, and since then, he's seen 11 illustrations of his own released, with more on the way.

Today, he's a Senior Art Director for Magic: the Gathering and has led several projects as a Lead Art Director, putting him in charge of characters, environments and visual worldbuilding for entire sets, most recently Phyrexia: All Will Be One, as well as the upcoming Lord of the Rings set and Lost Caverns of Ixilan coming later this year. "I've also commissioned art as early as Ikoria (specifically, the Godzilla cards), Kaldheim, and Warhammer 40,000, all the way to March of the Machine," he said. "Every now and then, but more often lately, I've done actual card illustrations."

Hedgewitch's Mask, by Ovidio Cartagena

Because he's simultaneously an artist, an art director, and an avid player, he's able to bring a unique perspective to his work with Magic, and perhaps more importantly he's been able to incorporate outside perspectives into each role as well. "As a player, I've come to know some amazing people who have made me improve my abilities as a player," he said. "I've also witnessed firsthand the impact our work has on players."

The impact a design will have on fans is something that is always at the forefront of Cartagena's mind as he approaches his work. "When I'm looking at a character or an illustration, I always keep fans in mind, not just for the emotional impact of the art but also for how it works as part of a game piece," he said. "To quote a very basic example: 'Sure, this scorpion looks really cool... should there be some glowing poison on the stinger so as to indicate deathtouch?'" That's just a starting point, he said, as things can get "quite complex, especially when including story elements, fan expectations, the legacy of the lore, and the cultural zeitgeist."

Mindsplice Apparatus, by Ovidio Cartagena

Eyes on the Foe

Ovidio Cartagena loves Magic, but alongside regular Limited play, Commander is a passion. Working at Wizards, Cartagena said he helps out sometimes with playtesting or drafting every week with coworkers. "However, I also love going to game stores with friends; I play Commander whenever I want to just hang out and have a good time," he said. "Now that you mention 'events,' I think that is the environment where I've least played. I should play at events more often."

Since 2016, one particular deck has been his "baby": specifically, Jenara, Asura of War.

Cartagena was interested in the Angel for more than just the card itself, but its color identity, too. "I've always loved Bant," he said. "It started first because I love the color combination as an artist, so I searched what I could do with that and for cards in that three-color combo that would give me a cool deck." He said he found Jenara to be the perfect commander to allow him to include characters he's loved over the years: Teferi, Ajani, and Brisela. Not to mention, he added, ramp cards like Coiling Oracle, Ramunap Excavator, and Birds of Paradise.

That last one is interesting, because as an artist, Cartagena's credited with one of the versions of Birds of Paradise, from a Secret Lair released in 2020, but he's not using it. "It'll be hard to part with Vignali's version because I love that art so much!"

Marcelo Vignali's version, originally printed in Ravnica: City of Guilds and since reprinted more than a half-dozen times, is lodged firmly in Cartagena's 99. Even when he was first tapped to create a new version for Secret Lair, the initial excitement wasn't enough to make the switch. "I'd been working on my Jenara deck for about three years when I got Tom (Jenkot)'s email that I would be making my own version of Birds of Paradise," said Cartagena. "I was elated in so many ways, one of them because I'd have my own art in a deck. However, by the time my art was printed in a card, I had grown attached to Vignali's art."

At its core, Cartagena's deck is "per Jenara's orders, a counter deck." The list focuses on mana ramp in the early game, opening up multiple avenues for its pilot. "I've got the options to either bring a very strong Jenara in for quick commander damage or just play a war of attrition against my opponent(s) by bulking up creatures," he said. "Since the deck has blue cards in it, there is a certain amount of control exerted on the board as well."

Following the release of Phyrexia: All Will Be One, Cartagena had for the first time the chance to add cards to his Jenara list that came from a set on which he was the Lead Art Director. It added a layer of personal connection for him, beyond another: his love for Tamiyo. "Tamiyo, Field Researcher is such an awesome card and great character (RIP)," he said. "When I was asked at Wizards of the Coast what character I'd like to be from Magic lore, Tamiyo was my answer."

Because he's an artist, he is particular with some aspects of the deck's aesthetics, but not in an obvious way. "I do pick lands with a 'sunset' for this deck, to go with Jenara's golden hour lighting," he said. "It's a subtle thing, but what's going on inside the art box means a lot to me."

Cartagena's Jenara list is a well-kept secret, and he said there'll be some "surprises" for his opponents he's reserving for the next time he plays the deck. "It's become somewhat of a target whenever I play it because of how powerful it is, and so I play it less often," he said. "Hopefully, next time I get to bring out Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines and Tekuthal, Inquiry Dominus to create fun memories."

Ghoul's Feast, by Ovidio Cartagena

One Ring and Lost Caves

This year's a big one for Cartagena, with the recent release of Phyrexia: All Will Be One along with the upcoming Lord of the Rings and Lost Caverns of Ixilan sets. He'll have plenty of new options to update his Jenara list both with cards featuring art he's commissioned or painted himself.

To keep up-to-date with Cartagena, follow him on Twitter or Instagram.