fredag 7 augusti 2015

Interview with Jesper Myrfors

Jesper Myrfors might not be a familiar name to many MtG players, but he was instrumental in the early success of the game. He was the first art director for the game, brought together the original 25 artists and co-designed the iconic card back.
Over a year ago I sent him and email asking for an interview, but I didn't get a response. Then, some months ago, I logged onto Facebook an early morning and noticed I had a friends request from one Jesper Myrfors. Drowsy as I was, I took me a good 10 seconds to realize who that was. An IM asked me if I still wanted to do an interview. I sure did.

As always, the official Swedish version is found at www.svenskamagic.com.

INTERVIEW WITH JESPER MYRFORS



August: Hello, Jesper. It's such an honor to have you with us. Thank you for getting in touch with me and making this interview possible!

Jesper Myrfors: The honor is mine. I am so thankful and happy that people still have an interest in those early days and what I and the other artists are up to. It means a lot to me.

Au: I have so many questions I barely know where to start! I read somewhere that you're born in Sweden and I know you speak Swedish. I'm curious about the Swedish connection, and I bet my readers would love to hear about this. Please tell us more!

JM: I was born in Stockholm win 1964, my father was an officer in the Royal Swedish Navy, my mother is also from Sweden, and she ran a Swedish newspaper here in the states for many years. We moved to Washington State when I was two years old, but I have always kept my Swedish citizenship. It’s something that I am proud of. My daughter Seraphia, who was born in the states is being raised with full knowledge of her Swedish heritage and attends a Swedish summer camp each year.

Au: What was your introduction to the worlds of fantasy and gaming?

JM: Dungeon and Dragons, back in 1979. It was right after the Monster Manual came out and right before The Dungeon Masters guide. I was hooked from the first time I played it. Dungeons and Dragons was the first time I really felt I could stretch my imagination. Interestingly, my grades in school began going up the more I played the game. It fostered a real interest in history and mythology. This was also during the time of “The Satanic Scare” here in the states, so I had a lot of prejudices to deal with concerning fantasy gaming, it’s not like it is today, some people really viewed it as a threat to belief systems. I remember some of my friends were forbidden from playing “those devil games”. Here’s a link to give you an idea:
http://mentalfloss.com/article/31885/12-nutty-dungeons-dragons-media-mentions-1980s

Au: We had a similar outburst of moral panic in Sweden. The horror roleplaying game Kult caused some strong reactions, and the book "De övergivnas armé" (translates as something like "Army of the Abandoned") pictured roleplaying games as violent and dangerous.

Before Magic, you worked on some other games at Wizards of the Coast, such as the pen and paper roleplaying game Talislanta. Can you tell us more about your work at Wizards prior to Magic?

JM: The entire reason I ended up working at WotC was because of Talislanta. It’s a game world I have always liked, kind of a grown up version of OZ, but weirder. I had gone into a local game shop to find out when the next book was coming out only to be told that the game had been sold, but sold to a local company. I got their contact information and put it in my pocket. I almost forgot about it. This was the summer between my junior and senior year in art college. Now every teacher at that college thought that there was no future in wanting to do fantasy art and told me I would never find work. So I promised myself that I would prove them wrong. I sent off several portfolios, which is how I ended up doing work for Vampire: The Masquerade as well. Lisa Stevens, the woman currently art directing for WotC said she really liked my work but the look and feel was wrong for Talislanta, I said I would do an illustration on spec, if they didn’t like it they were under no obligation to use it. She gave me a week to turn one in, two days later I turned in two and the creator of Talislanta liked them so I was hired to do art for the game. The ironic thing is that once I was made art director for the company I rejected those pieces I had done as not right for the look and feel of Talislanta. So they were never published.

Au: 21 years ago collectible card games weren't really a thing. What was the first thing you ever heard about Magic?

JM: To be fair, Steve Jackson games in the UK had come out with a collectable trading card game before magic. It was a scratch ticket style game with limited replay-ability, but they were first. But to answer your question; when I was first brought into the company the others would sneak off for secret meetings I was not invited to. Being the new guy I was not yet trusted fully. Eventually they invited me and I saw Magic for the first time. After my first game I said “stop paying me, I want everything in stock”. I knew it was going to change gaming forever.

Au: How did you come to be the art director of Magic? Did you apply for the job or was it offered to you?

JM: I just kept showing up to the company, volunteering to do whatever needed to be done, I was also one year away from my illustration degree, so they asked if I wanted to take over as art director. It wasn’t really what Lisa wanted to do. I jumped at the offer. They had said when I first showed up with my portfolio that if I kept showing up they would put me to work.


Au: You're one of the original 25 MtG illustrators. How was the other 24 appointed? Did you handle this personally, was it handled by someone else at Wizards or did you place ads? You and Anson Maddocks studied together at the Cornish College of Arts, so I guess you're the one who brought him in!

JM: I handled it personally. I hired some people I had grown up with like fellow Swede Tom Wanerstrand, and others that I went to art school with. For the rest they were recommended by the artists I already knew. After the first set I started looking at conventions and requesting portfolios and the artist pool began to broaden. I met Anson Maddock, Andi Rusu, Amy Weber, Sandra Everingham and Cornelius Brudi at college.

Au: What was it like working as both art director and illustrator?

JM: Busy, and fun. The only downside was that I ended up doing a lot of last minute artwork when an artist had to drop out due to emergencies or if a card was added at the last second. It lead to me having work out there that I am not proud of. I tried to make up for that with The Dark, which I wrote so that I could do the type of art I wanted to do for the game.

A 4"x4" re-imagining of Tundra. From Mini Magic Art.

Au: Nowadays most Magic artists work digitally, but you actually made the first digital illustration ever in Magic. Please tell us more about Circle of Protection: Black and why it was made digitally!

JM: Deadlines. It had accidently been left out of Alpha and by the time the mistake was noticed Beta was about to go to press, that same day. So I had to create an illustration with no art supplies on hand. So I broke my own rule and did it in Photoshop so that the product could go to press. Not a proud moment. Not a good result.

Au: Let's say you would revisit Circle of Protection: Black today. Without time pressure and with access to any materials you need, how would you paint it?

JM: I certainly wouldn’t have done a rushed digital piece. I think I would have done a variation of an authentic magic circle of protection with shadowy black shapes on the periphery. I don’t think I would have put a figure in the circle as it would have made it too busy at the small size.

Au: Sounds very atmospheric! I wish could have seen it..

Together with Christopher Rush, you designed the iconic card back which remains to this day. That's your work on every MtG card that's ever been printed! Can you tell us anything about the design process (of the card back)?

JM: Chris designed the outline for the words “Magic: The Gathering” on the card back, I did the rest including the coloring of the text. The card backs developed as follows: I wanted something timeless looking and not standard “gaming”. A few years earlier I had tried to get a gig painting backdrops for a photography studio and had generated a bunch of background samples. One of these I had always liked and since it had never been published I used it as the base for the card backs. The thin blue circle is scanned from a painting that a religious zealot called “Joe the Ant” had given to Lisa when she was in college, apparently he was “an ant for god” and was giving away all of his things. The painting was not very good, but she dared me to incorporate it into the design, so I did. Thank you Joe the ant, wherever you are.

Au: Joe the Ant... Priceless.

JM: Because the background was so busy I needed a calm section to place the Magic logo on, so that’s how the blurred section came to be. The “Deckmaster” was added last minute on orders of the CEO, he wanted all the future card games to be branded “Deckmaster”. It’s pretty embarrassing looking back on it, and it’s stuck on the cards now, there’s no going back without a full reboot. “Deckmaster”…it sounds so 90s.
The final element was the “mana balls” they were put on there as a guide to show how the different types of magic complimented or opposed each other. I’ve seen people with that design tattooed on themselves, that’s so weird to see.

Au: Not long ago my wife made an interview with Randy Asplund. He describes the early art assignments as pretty loose and undefined. According to Randy, the illustrator rarely got more than the title of a card, and then it was up to the artist to make up the rest. What was it like from your point of view?

JM: My goal was to use as much of other artists creativity as possible. I knew the more I allowed others to input their own vision, the stronger the game would be. We were designing a world and a world is a big place, open to many influences. I did not want to the game to only represent my vision, which by default was narrower than allowing 25 people their own visions. I really liked the diversity of the early game.

Au: You were the lead designer of The Dark, a flavor focused set with a strong horror theme. Obviously The Dark tried to decrease the overall power level of the cards, but I'm curious the hear more about the design process. What was your vision for the set?

JM: The Dark was really about religious intolerance, which is a theme I return to often. It was the horror of puritanical America. It was also heavily influenced by H.P. Lovecraft. I wanted a chance to do dark brooding artwork, the type I love to paint. I had been doing a lot of work for Vampire as well as Magic and my love of light and shadow was really growing as a result. I had also had requests from other artists that they wanted to do darker work.

A recent re-intepretation of Armageddon. From Mini Magic Art.

Au: Speaking of horror, I have detected some lovecraftian influences in the early years of Magic, specifically in your work and that of Anson Maddocks and Mark Tedin. Nightmarish cards such as Phantom Monster and Maze of Ith or ominous, surreal things like Basalt Monolith and Cyclopean Tomb. You come across as quite a fan of HP Lovecraft, so I have to ask - am I on to something here?

JM: Yes you are. I am a huge fan of his work, though not his racism. I am actually sitting next to a hand written poem by Lovecraft that he wrote to a friend while traveling, as I answer this question. He captured a dreamlike feel in his work that has yet to be matched. You can find Lovecraft references in a lot of early magic if you look for it. Sunken City is a Deep Ones city, Cosmic Horror, Elder Spawn, Living Wall, there are many more.

Au: Ha, I knew it. :)

Pick five favorites among classic MtG illustrations (1993-94)!

JM: That’s a tough question. I really like different pieces for different reasons. I really liked Hurloon Minotaur by Anson Maddocks, Dandân by Drew Tucker, Chaos Orb by Mark Tedin, Underground Sea by Rob Alexander and anything by Quinton Hoover.

Au: Quinton was truly one of the greats! Would you share your thoughts about him as an artist?

JM: Quinton was an amazing artist and an amazing gentleman. The very first time I saw his work I knew it was a cut above the rest. I have always loved art nouveau, and he had the style done perfectly. The amazing thing is that he really made it his own and brought modern fantasy art sensibilities into the mix. His use of line and color was astounding and everything he did felt alive. The thing about Quinton was that when I commissioned artwork from him I knew I was going to get a stunning piece. It’s as if he just didn’t have off days. I miss him greatly and not a week goes by where I do not think of him. Magic would not have been Magic without Quinton Hoover and the game was greatly diminished when they stopped hiring him.


Au: Thank you for sharing that.

Let's talk about one of my favorite illustrations! How did the Atog come about?



JM: People really seem to like the Atog. My goal in designing the image was to come up with a destructive creature that didn’t look outright evil. I wanted something friendly and sort of silly looking. As it turns out it looks very similar to a British children’s show character, a puppet I think. I forgot it’s name. I had no knowledge of the puppet character, but I have to admit they do look alike. As a side note, it took 20 years, but a fan recently noticed that the Atog is indeed on a ship. The story in my mind was that he was captured for transport to a rich buyer when he escaped and ate most of the ship, disappearing into the wild to cause trouble in a new land.

Au: What do you think about the current look and art direction of Magic?

JM: I think the art is fantastic and the artists are very talented. However, I also feel that almost all of the art is ill suited for the small space the cards allow. The images turn to mud if not viewed from a very close distance. One of the driving mandates behind the early art was that we wanted each image to be focused and iconic. I wanted someone walking by a game of magic to be able to look down at the table and make out what was on each card. Now they have the equivalent of book covers on each card and the work does not hold up at a distance. They make for great prints and posters, but not good cards.

Au: Today style guides are used for visual coherency, but you were part of the team that put together the first style guide ever for Magic, the one for the Rath Cycle block. Who came up with the idea of a style guide and how did you go about making it?

JM: It was a group decision. As soon as they began wanting to create an actual intellectual property there came the need for a consistent look to creatures and environment. At first, even though we were creating a world with Magic it was not a real world, it was a world hinted at. That changed when the company wanted to start making an identifiable world and one they could license to others. I know a movie had always been the dream of a few people who had started the company. The style guides themselves were fun to make and went smoothly, much of it done in house.

Au: I was surprised to learn that you continued to work with Magic after you stopped illustrating for the game, but you actually remained as an art director for quite some time. Why did you decide to stop illustrating for the game?

JM: The company flat out lied to the illustrators. They promised “royalties for life.” There was a lot of talk about how they were going to make sure artists were well paid and respected. That went out the window when the game got successful and the suits came in, outsiders who saw that they could raise their own pay by stealing from those who had made the game successful. I refused to paint another image for the game after that. Not only did they get rid of royalties, they hired artists to redo the old pieces so that they wouldn’t have to pay the original artists any longer. It was disgusting and greedy, a real betrayal. I apologize, for sounding bitter. I realize that it’s not very attractive, however those are the facts of what happened.

Au: I'm very sorry to hear that, Jesper. I had no idea..

When exactly did you leave WotC and Magic and what were the reasons?

JM: I left twice, the first time was due to total burn out and mental collapse, I had been working 21 hour days for months and just couldn’t take it anymore. The game was doing well and with my royalties I seemed in a position to leave. The second time was because the company had sold, it was too big, too political and it was no fun to be there. I was hating every day, I was hating the meetings were people were trying to figure out what cheap plastic garbage they could put the magic logo on to sucker people out of more of their money, I was sick of people who had never played the game telling us what to do to “take it to the next level”. It really had become a sort of twisted hell compared to how it had started. I think one of the moments that really killed my love of the company was over Weatherlight. Originally the main character and captain of the ship was a strong black woman. We were told we had to make the white male first lieutenant captain because our customers “didn’t care about black women”. They actually used those words. So in a fantasy world where non humans were accepted in roles of authority, putting a black woman in power was just too much for the frightened suits and their bottom line. It went against everything I stand for and made leaving later much easier. I also received a payout from the sale of the company so when that happened I bolted.  I would like to point out that the company is under new management, the people who made that call are long gone. There is no need for anyone to take out any anger on the current Wizards of the Coast. In fact they now do a great job of representing diversity.

Au: What was your first project after leaving Magic?

JM: I art directed a game called Shadowfist, with many of the original magic artists involved. It is an amazing game and I think they still make it today, though it has changed companies. I have to say in all honesty that I enjoy playing Shadowfist more than I enjoy playing Magic, but that comes down to play styles and the fact that Shadowfist was designed for multiplayer. It still would not exist with out Richard Garfield’s brilliance. He changed the world.

Au: A couple of years ago, you and about 35 classic MtG artists got together and released the art book "The Gathering". Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get my hands on a copy, but I think it was such a great idea to showcase and celebrate the classic Magic art! It remains popular to this day and trust me when I say I've heard dozens of people say they prefer the way the game used to look. What are your thoughts on this?

JM: Jeff Menges and Pete Venters put that project together and they did a great job. 
As for how the game looks, I see it this way. The technical ability of the current magic artists is way above what we were doing back in the beginning, but it all does tend to look the same, and not just the same within the game, but the same as other companies projects. There are standout artists and stand out pieces and many people I really admire work on the game, it just doesn’t feel very original anymore. And I stand by that it’s too cluttered for the size the art is reproduced at. That said, there are some pieces I have seen for the game that make my jaw drop at how good they are. The bottom line is that the game sells, so what do I know? It works for them.


Au: You have a project called Mini Magic Art, which is about re-interpreting and recreating your classic Magic pieces and making them available for a small price. A fantastic idea, I'd say! Why did you start this project and what has the initial response been like?

JM: I get a lot of requests for my old originals, which for the most part sold 20 years ago. It occurred to me, as an art collector myself that sometimes people really just want to own something from the hand of the person who created something meaningful to them. It’s the same reason I own that Lovecraft poem. This really became apparent when I did a mini version on a tundra, just to see if I could paint one really small (3.81 x 3.81 centimeters). I had multiple request to buy it from me the day I posted it. 
The original paintings from alpha all sell for over $10,000 US these days which puts them out of reach for the average fan of the game. So I thought if I did smaller versions of my magic art, people could afford it and it might be a nice little business. Which it is turning out to be.
The sad truth is that my family lost everything when Hidden City Games went under, not only our business but our house as well. So we are trying to rebuild our lives at this point. I missed painting a great deal and needed a project so Mini Magic Art was born. I really want to thank everyone who has been supportive of the project and who has bought artwork from us. It really has made a difference in our lives, as have the many words of encouragement. I am deeply touched.
We are currently expanding the idea beyond just my own artwork to include other original magic artists. We will also be offering non magic related artwork by those same artists for sale as well. We try to keep the prices below $100 US for most pieces. The very small ones are $20, and the bigger ones (10.16 x 10.16 centimeters) are $80. We are working on a website, but in the meantime we have a Facebook page: 

As well as Mini magic, Brian Snoddy, another of the original Magic artists and myself are also making games. Our first game Deadfellas, is on it’s 2nd edition. It’s a non-collectable zombie mafia game for the whole family. You can find more information at this link.

Au: Haha, "a zombie mafia game for the whole family" - that's not something you hear every day! I'm a fan of Brian Snoddy though (Helm of Obedience being one of my favorite illustrations of all time), and I'll be sure to check it out.
I'm glad to hear that Mini Magic Art is doing well and that it has brought a positive change to your life! I'm incredibly happy with my Elves of Deep Shadow, which now holds a place of honor on my living room wall.

Question from my wife: "How would you design yourself as an MtG card?"

JM: As far as art, I would paint myself mostly in shadow as I do try to avoid the spotlight. As for stats…Cost would be one mana of each color. Ability would be to draw a card from the top of your deck and put it in play immediately. You may draw as many as you like, you may stop drawing at any time but if you draw a card with art by an artist already drawn or a duplicate card, you lose all creatures and enchantments you have in play.

Au: That card seems pretty good! Is there anything you'd like to add in conclusion?

JM: I do sign cards and do alters, I’m also happy to do larger commissions. All you have to do is contact my agent, Daniel Chang. He can be reached at: Daniel@vintagemagic.com

Minis are a separate thing. Those go through my wife. Juliem@isomedia.com

Au: Thank you, Jesper. This interview has been special to me. Good luck in the future and lets hope Mini Magic Art conquers the world!

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