The latest Magic: the Gathering expansion is set on a magical plane called Theros. Check out this gallery of Theros art and interview with Magic's senior creative designer to learn how they borrowed from Greek mythology to create a new fantasy realm.
Theros will be officially released this weekend. I talked to Senior Creative Designer for Magic: The Gathering Doug Beyer about the blend of mythology and Magic. The hi-res art gallery is after the interview, and it has some of the most beautiful Magic art I've ever seen. They're amazing pieces in their own right, but also incorporate themes and artistic forms from classical Greek art and the neoclassical movements of more recent eras.
io9: In Theros, you’re not literally telling the stories of Greek mythology, but you’re obviously mirroring those stories in a lot of ways. At the same time you’re telling unique stories that happen within Magic’s own mythology. Can you talk about the challenges of creating that kind of parallel universe of stories?
Doug Beyer: Our goal was to create a world that lived in the sweet spot between Greek mythology and Magic’s dynamic style of fantasy. It’s a world of gods, but those gods tend to correspond to Magic’s five colors of mana. It’s a world of heroes, but those heroes are diverse members of many fantasy races. It’s a world of epic monsters, but Magic fans will recognize several of the fearsome creature types from past sets. We found that the two worked extremely well together. It felt natural to tell an epic fantasy story about Elspeth, the planeswalker, in a world inspired by the feats of epic heroes of Greek myth. It felt natural to build a plane full of over-the-top monsters, and even to populate the plane with gods. That’s part of the strength of Theros—its foundation is a very strong flavor overlap between its source material and the central values of Magic.
io9: In Theros, players can actually cast and control gods. Magic’s planeswalkers have always been godlike beings in a lot of ways, so how will planeswalkers interact with gods? In a narrative sense, how are planeswalkers and gods different?
DB: The gods of Theros are very powerful beings, able to perform feats that even a great archmage might never be able to accomplish. However, they’re bound to the plane of Theros—they can’t planeswalk to the other worlds in the Multiverse like planeswalkers can. Planeswalkers can become powerful spellcasters, but what sets them apart is that they’re not tied to that one world. Within their element, on the world of Theros, the gods are almost unstoppable. But a planeswalker always has that edge of being able to travel through any number of worlds, and their ability to gain knowledge and spells from the worlds they discover.
io9: The ordeal card cycle is clearly telling a story that the enchanted creature goes through and eventually completes. Can you explain the inspiration for those cards and how they were designed?
DB: The ordeal enchantments were designed to be akin to the labors of Heracles, and other classic tales of arduous trials assigned to a hero by a god. The hero must complete the ordeal—in this case, the need to survive an attack a certain number of times, or in some other way achieve the requisite number of counters—in order to prove the hero’s worth. If the hero succeeds, then the god will grant him or her a divine blessing. They ordeal cards are quite flavorful as you play them—you really want your hero to brave the dangers of combat while undergoing their ordeal, so that they can become more powerful, and so that you receive your satisfyingly godly gift at the end.
io9: Enchantments have always been shunned by skilled Magic players, always afraid of the dreaded 2-for-1. But R&D has never given up on creature enchantments, working to find ways to make them playable and powerful enough to overcome their inherent flaw. Why do you think enchantments are important enough to elicit that kind of effort? Is there something unique that they bring to the game?
DB: The simple truth is that enchantments are just fun. That’s kind of the whole reason. Slapping an aura on your creature, and combining their abilities into a mega-creature, has always been fun gameplay since Magic began—it just hasn’t always been very powerful compared to other things you can do in the game. The risk of playing auras outweighed the inherent joy of combining cards together to create a customized monster. With Theros’s Greek mythology theme, we had a great opportunity to showcase enchantments in a new way, by letting them play the role of the magic of the gods. That led us to some designs, including the enchantments with the Bestow mechanic, that minimize the potential drawback of your cobbled-together monster dying. It lets you return to the fun of auras while reducing that nagging sense of risk. What I love is that it also reinforces the feel of the setting, letting you grant divine power to your heroes just like you’re a god of Greek myth.
io9: The only well-known planeswalker appearing in Theros is Elspeth – can you tell me about her story and how she came to be on this plane?
DB: Elspeth is a classic knight-errant figure, a planeswalker who has always moved from plane to plane, fighting evil wherever she goes. But in her heart, she has always sought a place where she can belong, where she can be part of something that endures. Trouble is, she has run into disaster at every turn, facing a stream of undead from Grixis and the horrible Phyrexians on Mirrodin. She’s fought valiantly, but each time, she has lost to the encroach of evil, unable to stop them on her own. She has come to Theros looking for something that can’t be defiled or corrupted, something greater than herself, something that’s unique to this world—the gods. Her hope is that she can become part of the community on Theros, and that the gods will protect her newfound home from disaster. But she will find that the gods will rely on her to become the hero she doesn’t want to be.
io9: What is your favorite top-down design in Theros?
DB: I love Underworld Cerberus. It delivers on the tale of being a three-headed hellhound, and it has the powerful ability of returning a bunch of creatures from the graveyard. At first it seems odd—that ability seems to contradict the idea that it’s a guardian of the underworld, a monster designed to keep the dead from escaping back to the world of the living. But note that it only allows those creatures to escape when it dies—and while it’s alive, it prevents players from messing with the dead. It tells a great story all in one package, and that story can play out every time you play the card.