Over the course of Magic: the Gathering‘s near-three-decade history, players and collectors have had the opportunity to collect countless premium versions of their favorite cards. From the prerelease promos that commemorate each game expansion’s release to the textless promo treatments that grace certain beloved cards, the opportunities for Magic‘s fanbase to customize their decks are already limitless. Yet somehow, Magic‘s designers at Wizards of the Coast can often still find ways to surprise us. And in a year full of surprises in Magic, there has been none as exciting as the introduction of etched foils in the recently released Commander Legends expansion.
Featuring a metallic sheen that provides each card with an ethereal yet glamorous glow, etched foils are singular in beauty– which makes them perfect for highlighting the generals that head decks in Magic‘s most popular casual format, Commander.
Recently, Comics Beat had the opportunity to sit down with Senior Product Designer Gavin Verhey and Senior Manager of Operations Tom Wanerstrand to discuss the development of Commander Legends, how Etched Foils were produced, and what the future of Magic‘s high end product line might look like in the years to come.
Alex Lu: Over the last year, we’ve seen the customization options in Magic: the Gathering While we had seen full art treatments and a variety of other uniquely framed Magic cards before, Throne of Eldraine completed a transition to what appears to be a new era of visual play in Magic’s design from showcase frames to full art treatments to the specialty art seen in Secret Lairs. What inspired this shift in product design?
Gavin Verhey: Hi there Comics Beat! Excited to talk with you today.
This is a fantastic question! A lot of it is looking at our data, and what players were doing. Magic is a game played with cards, and players traditionally have loved alternate versions of those cards. From full-art cards, to special promos, to unique art styles – these things consistently were heralded as huge for Magic. Yet, we consistently did in terms of premium versions of Magic cards were foils.
We realized there was a huge gap here so we sought out to go fill it, and delight collectors and players alike. You will continue to see us evolve what a Magic card can look like, both pushing the art style and the frame of these cards. There’s some stuff in the near-term future that, well, let’s just say that our internal chatroom began scrolling with excited replies when they were shown off in a meeting.
Lu: Stemming from this, now that we’ve had over a full year of collector booster products and nearly a full year of Secret Lairs, how have you found this expansive initiative to have gone over, both internally and with the player base writ large?
Verhey: Internally, it’s been great. Magic has been doing incredibly well, and we definitely contribute some of it to these card styles. It just gives more people a reason to want to get Magic cards: whether as an art piece, to collect, or just because they want the coolest version.
Externally, it has also been pretty great. When we experiment with the variety of art styles and cool frames, we’re getting all the reactions we’re hoping for. It’s overwhelmingly positive! The one piece of feedback is that we need to make is that it is easier to determine what can be found where because now there can be many different versions of the same card. We’ve been making some adjustments as we learn from all of this that I think will continue to make players happy. It’s been really cool seeing even our most enfranchised players, people who have been playing for 20+ years see a new visual and flip out tweeting about how cool it is. That’s hard to do and booster fun has accomplished it!
Lu: When the initial wave of collector booster products and Secret Lairs were announced, as excited as I was, one major concern I had was that Magic’s product design and creative departments might be stretched thin. How have those teams risen, changed, and perhaps grown to meet the logistical and creative challenges posed by increased product output?
Verhey: Well, making a few new hires certainly helped! But outside of just bringing more talent into the group, the team has done a really good job looking forward and getting the process down. For example, Tom Jenkot (Senior Art Director) does a lot of the sourcing around unique artists and styles for Secret Lairs, from storybook like Eldraine to comic book like Ikoria, while someone like James Arnold (Senior Graphic Designer) is always working on some cool upcoming frame treatments. One of the things I miss the most about working from home is not being able to walk over to James’s desk where he has, quite literally, ensconced himself in alternate frame designs, with them printed up on walls all around him. There’s so much cool stuff!
I really have to commend the various groups in the company, especially the creative team and the hard work of Creative Director Jessica Lanzillo. They were given a really tough task (“Make Magic cards look more awesome, in new ways, every set) and have been nailing it in every set. I’m not going to say that there haven’t been plenty of intense deadlines and reworks – there certainly were, especially early in the process but no[w], we’re well set up going into the future. I’m so proud of what Magic has been able to accomplish: we truly have a better looking game than ever before!
And I know some people might read that and think, “I liked how Magic cards used to look.” Well, we have something for you too. As a longtime player, it was important to me that creating multiple different styles of cards also meant reaching back into our bag of tricks with nostalgia. So next year, for example, with Time Spiral Remastered, we’re seeing recent cards put into the original Magic card Frame – something we haven’t trotted out for a long time. That’s all I can talk about for now – but let’s just say there’s some cool stuff in the works on the nostalgia front.
Lu: When it comes to collector boosters in Commander Legends, the capstone product for what has been deemed “the Year of Commander,” what were the major things you wanted to offer a player base known for loving to customize their decks to express their personalities?
Verhey: Legends! Lots and lots of legends.
The beating heart of Commander deckbuilding are legends. Every deck is built around a legend and every new legend unlocks a whole new world of possibilities. I really feel like that part of the success of the format can be attributed to that you never build one deck and are done. You build one deck, see a new legend, and then immediately want to build another!
Commander Legends has more legendary Commanders in it than any other set in history, including 41 new partners. When you combine all the partners together, you end up with over 1500 possible combinations! Now that’s a lot of decks you can build.
In the Collector Boosters for Commander Legends, we went above the 2 guaranteed legends you get in every draft booster and upped it: every Commander Legends Collector Booster has a whopping five Legendary Commanders in it, including 3 of them in foil etched – which we’ll get to a little bit later, I’m sure – and one of them as the 32 fan-favorite reprint legends we put in the set. It’s a real legendspalooza!
Lu: Indeed– I definitely want to talk about the etched foils. First, however: one of the highlights of the collector boosters in this set is the opportunity for players to get extended art versions of common and uncommon commander staples such as Arcane Signet and Sol Ring. What were the conversations that went into selecting this pool of cards like? Were there any cards discussed that didn’t make it into this product but might be on the shortlist for a future product (such as a Commander Legends 2)?
Verhey: There are so many cards I want to do this treatment to! I made an initial list based on any cards in Magic and it was very long.
Ultimately, to create some guiding rails, we decided to only grab cards that appear in the main set or the two associated Commander decks. I grabbed a lot of my favorites out of these eligible options, but there are still tons of them that weren’t in the set that I want to do. I really hope that if I get to do a Commander Legends 2, or at least in some other set, we can keep doing these.
Lu: Sweet! Okay…now, the splashiest treatment in Commander Legends is the foil-etched treatment. While we’ve seen cards with unique thematic frame and art treatments inserted into collector boosters over the last year, this is the first time we’ve seen an entirely new foiling process applied to cards in this sort of product. What inspired this design?
Verhey: Yes, they are stunning! I am so happy with how these turned out and once again, great work to our creative and production teams to make these happen.
More or less, a couple odd promos aside, Magic has used the same kind of foiling process on all of its cards since we switched to the current card frame. As we were looking at investigating other kinds of card treatments – art, frame, and so on – another natural place to look was the foiling! We investigated several different techniques along with our vendors and settled on this one eventually.
I like it so much because it really feels elegant. When you play one of these cards, you feel sophisticated like you’re holding a diamond, or something. Based on the fan reaction so far, I doubt you’ve seen the last of foil etched cards!
Lu: Tom, once the idea for etched foils was greenlit, what went into the design process to bring the idea to life?
Tom Wanerstrand: The Creative Director and I had been exploring some different ideas and techniques for foiling cards for some time. There were some newer foil techniques known to us that we had previously applied to packaging, so the idea emerged to see if we could apply these to cards. We experimented with a few different approaches and designs and weighed the pros and cons of each technique. There were quite a few full-blown press productions required to finally nail what was desired.
Lu: What were some of the challenges, if any, that came up when attempting to give etched foils the desired finish?
Wanerstrand: Initial design direction was centered on a very fine filigree treatment within the card frames. We quickly realized that while the effect was cool, it really didn’t have the visual impact we were after on the table.
We landed on this idea of using the foil process over a larger area to take advantage of its sparkling nature, and executing the finer details using traditional layers or inks and screens.
Lu: Holding the etched foil cards in hand, what strikes me most about them is how they have a smooth finish to the touch, but seem to glitter in the light. Given the glitter effect, I was expecting a more matte finish! What kinds of materials and processes were used to achieve this effect?
Wanerstrand: The cool thing about this process is that the foil has no plastic layer, just the metallization itself adhered to the card. This means that there is no plastic at all on the card surface, so the foil picks up some of the grain of the paper and visually amplifies the textured effect.
The smoothness you feel is the top varnish, which has both a glossy effect over the card frame, and a secondary matte effect over the other card elements.
Lu: Were there any challenges in getting the materials used in etched foil cards to have the same weight and thickness we expect from other Magic cards?
Wanerstrand: Indeed. There are lots of materials and techniques out there available for print, but relatively few of them yield the characteristics required for a playable card. This particular foil process adds very little extra material to the card surface, so it really excels in this area.
Lu: Back to Gavin– all the legends in Commander Legends have a foil-etched treatment, but excitingly, a subset of legends from Magic’s past were chosen to be reprinted and receive the foil treatment as well. What inspired these cards’ inclusion in the set?
Verhey: One of the things you try and do as a game or product designer is anticipate audience needs. You’re not always right but it’s always worth thinking ahead! Once we settled on wanting to do this treatment, we knew there was a pretty good chance players would love it and they would also love getting some of their favorite commanders in this treatment!
So as part of the foil etched experiment, we selected 32 popular reprint legends and put them into the set. If you didn’t have the card before, here’s a reprint for you, and if you did, here’s a new version you can go find for your deck if you’d like. Given the reaction to these cards and the foil etched treatment, this is definitely one of those times where I’m so glad we went ahead and did this along with the initial release rather than waiting for the next time we use foil etched!
Lu: How were the specific reprint legends we see as etched foils in this set chosen from Magic’s vast history of legendary creatures?
Verhey: The first ones were the original 15 partners: we were returning the partner mechanic here, so it seemed like a natural place to reprint those 15 – especially because many of the original 15 were quite hard to come by! From there, we tried a lot of different configurations, but making sure we had all 3-color trios represented and evening up the two-color pairs seemed like a good direction to go down.
When it came to actually picking which legends, I used a lot of data and experience in which legends people love. We wanted to pick some of the most popular ones for each color combination available – and while ultimately only one per combination could win out, I feel like we got a pretty good mix in there.
Lu: Given the challenging moment we’re living in, when many American Magic players will be unable to draft Commander Legends for a while, if ever, are there any plans for keeping this product and others on store shelves for a more extended period of time?
Verhey: The good news for everyone is that this is not a limited print run product like a Masters set. We’ll keep printing it for a while. If you want your chance at a box (or five), you should have plenty of time to get yours.
I’ll also note, if you’re hungry to draft, the Magic Online team worked incredibly hard to get the set onto that platform fully draftable! So be sure to check that out and experience the draft for yourself.
Lu: Finally, to end on a high—what Commander decks are you most excited to build with the new legends from this set?!
Verhey: There are so many! One of the things we really focused on here was creating new and unique legends, that did things you’ve never seen before. To that end, the one I’m probably most excited about is Obeka, Brute Chronologist. She ensures that anything which happens at end of turn never actually occurs – which lets all kinds of temporary tokens or other effects stick around. It’s a whole new kind of Commander deck!
Thank you so much for the interview, and I really hope you enjoy Commander Legends! This is my love letter not to Commander, but to Commander as a whole. Have fun!
Commander Legends is available now. Etched Foil cards can be found on a rare basis in Draft Booster Packs and on a guaranteed three-per-pack basis in Collector Boosters.
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