Art of Theros – Designing Black

My art has always skewed a bit dark. So when I worked on Theros, a sun-drenched plane full of vibrant colors, I still figured out a way to sneak in a little darkness. Without intending it, I ended up laying down many of the core design gags for “black” in Theros. Here’s a little insight into them.

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The Returned

Each color needed a signature non-Human race. Tritons worked for blue, Minotaurs for red, and Satyrs for green. Greek mythology is very tied to the natural world, so there was no obvious fit for a mythological race to fit the niche in black. This was one of the unknowns going into the design process for Theros.


Sometime in the first week of the concept push, I was talking about the issue with Adam Paquette. I had picked up on an erie bronze burial mask in one of our reference books, and that led me to think about the land of the dead. What if all the dead in Theros wore these masks? What if there was nothing underneath them anymore? What kind of creature would they be when they ventured back from the underworld? These were exciting questions with fascinating implications!


I worked up a few different concepts to show off how the Returned (we were even calling them that at the time) would be visually distinct from living creatures. The trick was making them specific while still having enough design flexibility to use them on a number of different card types. Ultimately, we even expanded to making undead versions of other races. This manifested in the first set with [card]Returned Centaur[/card].


It’s not a real plane until you’ve got Demons. I was primarily inspired by the story of Argus, the giant that is sometimes said to have one-hundred eyes. Looking back on it, I’m not sure why I associated him with demonism, but he worked well as a starting point. I thought of them as humanoid guard dogs with their body covered in eyes. I reused the grey and gold motif that I established with the returned. Since everything needed an opportunity to add color, gold seemed like a way to let some chroma in without betraying their dark feel.


I topped the design off with a number of other possible exaggerated body types.


No one in Theros wears a white toga, but what about a black one? Black, red, gold. That’ll introduce a little color while still feeling monochrome. Seemed legit. And something about a whip seemed rather sinister…


Speaking of whips.

Erebos, God of the Dead

Before there were Gods, there was the idea of gods. But what does a god look like? Just a big human? Something abstract wouldn’t do, it had to be like a person but with something that makes them feel bigger than us. They needed be part human and part idea.


He’s my single favorite design that I’ve done for Magic, but he’s actually built upon a rejected design from Return to Ravnica. After the initial concept push for RTR, I worked up some pitches for some guild leaders that we hadn’t pinned down. One of them was a lich that was going to be the new head of the Dimir. He was ultimately never used for anything in that block, so I tried to resurrect him for Theros.

[card erebos, god of the dead]Erebos[/card] needed to be the face of death itself. Sinister and unavoidable while being a bit peaceful and tragic. The faces on his shoulders were a call back to the masks that the dead wore, but I didn’t want him to wear a mask. He would be the one dead thing in this world that still had a face. The stylized crescent on top of his head came to symbolize the moon, though it was a vestige from the old design he was built on top of. It also resembles Quickman (a boss from Megaman 2), which I’m going to claim was a subconscious decision.

[card whip of erebos]Erebos’s whip[/card] was created to give him a signature weapon that emblematized his reach and control. Anyone caught trying to escape would get pulled back to the underworld.

At first, I imagined him crafting the masks of the dead and laying them on the ground in his inner sanctum. When he would pull the mask up, a body would emerge from the grey mud underneath it forming the shape of the person in their second life. Ultimately, I never did an illustration of this and the mythology was explained much differently.


If you managed to make it to the bottom of this article and are still hungry for more design work, check out more illustration and concept art at my website www.vandalhigh.com

-Pete Mohrbacher


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