Nature is normally depicted as placid and unfeeling. However, in Battle for Zendikar, the land is in constant Flux. Those who learn to survive the Roil, like the Kor, find shelter and safety. In a weird inversion, the land is more lively than the expressionless Eldrazi. You can see this reflected in the art. The lands are vibrant, with high-intensity colors. Compare that to the Eldrazi, which are pale and usually drawn with a subdued color palette.
In fact, one criticism I have of this set, which I've heard other people voice as well, is that the Eldrazi all start to blur together. They are hulking Abominations standing around menacingly. But you can only see so many titanic creatures before you start to get bored. Ironically I have the same criticism of the Eldrazi that I usually have of landscapes: they're a snooze fest. That said, there are a few that are worth mentioning. Let's take a look at the best behemoths Battle for Zendikar has to offer.
As an avid anime fan, I consider myself a tentacle connoisseur. And writhing appendages are the name of the game in Battle for Zendikar. Look at this delicious trio of people being pummeled, pierced, and pinned by eldritch Abominations. Notice how washed out the color schemes are for Brutal Expulsion and Touch of the Void. In Touch of the Void it makes the writhing red tentacles stark even though they aren't that deep a shade. In all of these pictures the Eldrazi are depersonalized. They aren't villains with schemes and motives; they are a raw, impartial force. They have the morality of an Earthquake.
There's some classic Aliens style face-hugging going on here. I don't know what that guy is experiencing, but I do not envy him and I want no part of it. The background is a little barren, but style is less important than subject for this card. Look at that poor sucker's prone hands, bird-like claws dangling limply from his wrists. It's creepy and atmospheric.
Serpentine Spike pictures just a slim slice of Eldrazi, but it's such a dynamic shot. The tentacle twists around, drawing the eyes of the viewer across the scene. His victim is oddly bloodless, but maybe that's because it's a vampire of Malakir. It's the sort of cinematic shot you expect from Jaime Jones.
Speaking of fun: what the heck is going on here? Eldrazi Jr. is a little too gung-ho about being turned into a living ballistic. What's even better is the aftermath of this picture. Imagine the poor bloke on the receiving end of a face full of screeching, flailing monster missile.
The tables turn in Reckless Cohort. Look at the Bravado of these two, slashing away at a bunch of killer flagella. One could almost say it's an attack on a titan. This is a nice glimpse of a ground floor battle between the puny humans and the overwhelming power of the Eldrazi. Judging by the mixture of rage and desperation on their faces, it's obvious that they don't think they are coming back from this battle.
Now let's traverse to the other end of the spectrum: the land. Landscape paintings have never been my forte. It takes a lot to make a bunch of rock look interesting. With that in mind, the lands of Zendikar aren't just scenery. The entire plane of Zendikar has this thing called the Roil, which is basically enormous Earthquakes that shake up the land and transform it into something else. It's a nice lore explanation for things like the original fetch lands, which were a hybrid of two ecosystems that could turn into something else at a moment's notice. You see this strange Flux in every land in Zendikar, with the ground being warped or giant chunks of rock floating in the air. This makes for immensely dynamic landscapes, and an interesting merger between normal landscape paintings and more expressive scene illustrations. Let's start with the best of the basics.
Here we can see Zendikar mid-Roil. The bright arc of flame Illuminates the boulders, giving the audience a nice visual sweep. There's a good balance between bright and dark in the piece.
Did you know that sunsets are red because of dust particles in the air? The massive Upheavals on Zendikar likely cause a lot of earth to churn into the sky, creating lovely scenes like this one. The sunlight washes over everything, making the vista a hazy dream. The warm yellow complements the green of the floating hillsides. The slight skewing of the camera prevents everything from lying flat, which gives the picture some movement.
Noah Bradley's soft brush strokes make those rocks in the background look practically fluffy. The horizon line divides the picture pleasantly between ocean and sky, so that the audience gets a balance of both.
The key to a compelling landscape is a balance between foreground and background. If you have objects closer to the camera, it provides a sense of scale for the rest of the piece. For example, without that front tree, we would have no idea how far away the farthest tree was. Are we looking at a bonsai tree close up, or a redwood a mile away? Positioning something in the foreground gives the audience a reference point for judging depth. This art has a heavy foreground, but it gives us a chance to view the texture of the tree, and the fine details of trailing moss.
Do you know how hard it is to paint haze? It's really hard. You have to control opacity to get the effect you want. Too thick and you can't see anything, but you want to set the mood. And the mood is definitely set here. It's spooky and ominous.
So the basics are nice, but what about the Expedition cards? You know, the high-dollar cards at least one player is going to outsource their organs for. There's no denying they are gorgeous. Let's look at some of the best ones and examine exactly what makes them so desirable.
The first thing that catches my eye about this piece is the spiral formed by the line of the cliffs, carried on by the floating rocks. It makes your eyes travel around in a slow circle. Go ahead, try it. Follow the steaming trails of the cliff up and around in a slow loop-de-loop. It's satisfying.
Anyone else think the light pink haze makes Flooded Strand look like Cotton Candy Falls? It's the picture of Serenity. The slabs of land are horizontal lines of paradise with just enough tilt to hold your attention. It's a little too pastel for my tastes, but it's also a far cry better than moldering dragon bones.
Once again there's a very pastel palette in this piece. It gives it an otherworldly feel, like walking into a faerie world. The red specks (which are either butterflies or small birds) give it a splash of vibrancy that prevents it from being a snore-fest.
This piece has a more adventurous color scheme of gentle blues and purples. There's a definite Yellowstone vibe, with the geysers and acid brightness of the water. Even the bleached white shrubbery is reminiscent of a geothermal hotspot. The harsh white lines also add interest to the piece, breaking up the darker areas. It's balanced, with just a hint of danger.
The vertical symmetry is strong with this one. The deep, blue water lined with stones leads our eyes up to the fiery centerpiece. Notice how almost all the rocks are slightly curved inwards, bringing us back towards the middle? Ryan Yee could have chosen to play up the contrast between red and blue, but instead the colors are low in intensity. It shifts the focus from the palette to the actual composition of the landscape.
The middle tree looks like a sassy caryatid with one hand on its hip. I implore the internet to deface this hundred dollar card with a cheap alter depicting it as such. Anyways, the atmospheric blurring is excellent, helping give Wooded Foothills a sense of depth.
Besides the Expedition stuff, there are some other eye-catching originals debuting in this set.
Here's your daily slice of art theory: there's this nifty thing called the rule of thirds. If you divide your picture into thirds and put the focal points of your piece along those leylines, your piece will be more dynamic and aesthetically pleasing. As you can see from the section above, Canopy Vista does a wonderful job of following this rule. The main vine snakes along that bottom border. The background vine fills the center, just brushing along the boundary between the middle and top third. And there's that lonely hedron, making sure the top third isn't bare. It's a structurally sound composition.
Here's another example of the rule of threes at work. The titular Prairie Stream occupies the bottom middle of the picture quite nicely. The horizon line is snug against that lower third. Finally, the background rock is floating ethereally along the intersection of three sections, making it catch our eyes.
It's always interesting to see how three different artists can take the same subject matter and show it differently. I love the pattern the white blight creates across the surface of the land. Jason Felix's Blighted Woodland has an almost fern-like branching, ribbed like the spine of a creature. In Blighted Steppe, Yeong-Hao Han shows it with the tapered tendrils of a spider's web, criss-crossing methodically. Jonas De Ro makes it look like a creeping frost, slowly crusting over Blighted Fen. All three pieces have brilliant contrast between the healthy land and the sickly white.
So we've seen the Eldrazi and we've seen the land. Let's conclude the art tour by looking at some of the other standouts in the set. In no particular order, here are my personal favorite pieces from Battle for Zendikar.
The way the wings emanate light is breathtaking. It's radiant without being neon and garish. Also, character design that includes multiple pairs of wings is always a plus for me.
It takes a certain amount of Bravado to use a brown color scheme. It isn't a marketable color. However, the coffee color scheme gives the piece a homey feel. Otherwise, the absolute verticals of both the steed and the cliffs would make the piece foreboding and strict instead of confident and steadfast.
Compare Makindi Patrol's verticals to Tajuru Stalwart's heavy horizontal. She's sprouting from the side of the cliff like a mountain-clinging tree. The swaying hair and rope tell us that this isn't a moment of placid reflection. Any moment she could spring into a rappelling dive. It's the anticipation, this hint of movement, that makes the piece interesting.
There's an almost cartoonish cast to this version of Dispel. The colors are bold, and the lighting gives Jace a thickly, dark outline. Above all, it's the dynamic posing that sells this card for me. When I picture wizards slinging spells at each other, this is the kind of epic energy discharge I imagine. Also, the Rule of Thirds is in full effect here. Both Jace's bend-line and the line formed by the hedrons fall along the lower third. The energy beam traces one branch of the grid. The climactic clash between palm and magic is right along a third intersection. That Rule of Thirds, man. It's everywhere.
That is one sweet tentacle beard. He looks like the second cousin of Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean. The lighting also has a bluish cast, showing that it's being filtered through water. Cynthia Sheppard's distinctive style of digital painting really shines here, capturing the underwater tone without being murky or indistinct.
I don't know where Chasm Guide is sprinting to, but I do not want to get in the way. There's an urgency to the pose, with Chasm Guide's head inches from the ground as she barrels ahead full force. There are even some subtle speed lines, with the background blurred for extra oomph.
Tandem Tactics looks like it belongs on the cover of a comic book. There is so much energy and Ferocity in the two figures. Just count how many diagonal lines are in the shot, making it a whirl of motion. The attention to detail on their outfits is nice, too, with well-balanced character design. The background is divided in two halves, between the blue of the sky and the yellowish sunburst, with each half framing one of the figures.
Jason Chan perfectly captures the slightly rubbery texture of kraken tentacle in Kiora, Master of the Depths. Look at how the tentacle and the wave arch along the same curve, helping draw the viewer's eye around the piece. Everything about the lighting is spot on. The highlights give the kraken that look of slick latex that is perfect. The Breaking Wave is illuminated enough to be beautiful without distracting. Even the soft shading on Kiora's curves is a joy to look at. Also notice how neatly everything is subdivided in the grid, with every section having something interesting to look at.
It's a leopard with scythes attached to its freaking forearms, because normal leopards aren't deadly enough. The spots border on red, and are brilliant against the leopard's cream-colored fur. The shrapnel of branches makes it look like the leopard just burst out of a log, hissing into the air. It's got those deep, rich hues that is the visual equivalent of sinking into a jacuzzi.
Yes, I admit, I am a sucker for animals. But look at how cute this guy is! It's a cool color palette, with a slow gradient from lighter to darker from one end to the other. The Felidar Cub bursts from the ledge, the cleft of rock framing its body. And those blue ears are just so precious.
That concludes your curated tour of the art of Battle for Zendikar. Despite the Eldrazi doldrums, overall the art in this set is fantastic. There's a ton of good pieces I didn't have time to mention, so make sure to look over the cards yourself and see what hidden gems you can find.