Magic the Gathering artist on designing Sauron for Lord of the Rings crossover
Magic The Gathering feels like it’s going through something of a boom at the moment, at least judging by my Twitter feed. The long-running fantasy card game has a long history of incredible art, but new crossovers offer unique opportunities to reimagine other franchises through the lens of the Planeswalkers - and what better universe to cross into than the iconic Lord of the Rings?
Middle Earth has come to Magic in a big way, and I was able to speak to Yigit Koroglu, longtime Magic the Gathering artist and designer, and the man tasked with the unenviable job of designing the likes of Sauron, the Nazgul, and Boromir for the card game.
- Check out Yigit's Artstation portfolio
The Lord of the Rings
“Sauron might be the representation of ultimate evil,” Koroglu says.
He is very smart, merciless and dreadful. It was a true honor and challenge for me to illustrate him in the set. He’s not a sidekick or a generic soldier, he is the “Lord” of the Rings."
“I thought, the simpler the design and the composition was, the more memorable the visual result would be.”
The result is striking indeed, but what goes into bringing an iconic character, one full of so much evil and expectation, to a piece of cardboard?
“I think the art directors of Wizards [of the Coast] are the best in the business,” Koroglu explains.
“They assign the right artist to the most suitable cards, foreseeing the end results just even before the initial sketches. With that said, they do not intervene in the style of the artist; they just combine different styles of artists in such a way that when you look at the whole set, everything is in great visual harmony and a joy to look at. It is really Magical,” he jokes.
"In every brief, Wizards of the Coast wants us to depict scenes in the most exciting ways, alongside as much diversity as possible so that every single player can feel that they are a part of the setting, so artistically and intellectually, there is no constraint at all.
- Find out why there's never been a better time to start playing Magic The Gathering
“Maybe the only constraint could be considered technical, which is, even though the cards are printed in the highest quality in such small dimensions, you have to be careful when creating artwork for them,” he reveals.
“They need to be readable in an instance, they should give a good depiction of the spell or creature etc. We generally create these illustrations on 4k monitors or large boards (traditionally), and those details might be lost on small game cards. We should stay away from dark values but still need to create dark scenes sometimes. It is a bit tricky there.”
“A hard quest”
With so many versions and iterations of Tolkien’s characters, though, how does one decide which Sauron to bring to life on cardboard?
“Wizards of the Coast has an amazing team of concept artists,” Koroglu says.
"They had already designed the appearance of the characters, creatures, locations and artefacts before illustrators started working on the set.
"As an illustrator, what I did was to take those concepts as starting points, and portray them in a way that the players would see a consistent world that they would like to be in (or not).
“It certainly was a difficult task to be able to reimagine Middle-Earth, especially after the interpretation of it which we saw in the Lord of the Rings movies,” he admits.
"This set, just like any other Magic: the Gathering set is a result of a tremendous amount of time and work of many people, so I cannot say it was my inspiration only, I was just a part of the team.
“What we tried to do was to have a modern take on Tolkien’s work and still keep the epicness, and as a team, I think we could do that. It was a hard quest, but in the end, I assume we came up with something that was welcoming for everyone.”
It’s been a long journey for Koroglu, who previously worked on Pathfinder before making his Magic debut with the card design for a Phyrexian Altar.
“I worked for Paizo’s Pathfinder releases and most of the time my art director was Andrew Vallas,” Koroglu explains.
“In 2018, I learned that Andrew started working for Wizards of the Coast by receiving an email from him asking if I would like to work for Magic: the Gathering’s upcoming set 'Ultimate Masters'.”
“He said the assignment was to depict a Phyrexian Altar and thought it would really match my style.”
It was an email that Koroglu had been waiting for his entire life.
“Working for Magic [and Wizards of the Coast] had been my childhood dream and I never thought it would come true,” he reveals.
Looking back and looking forward
After so many cards, Koroglu still has some favourites.
“I am going to put working on Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-Earth aside, since it was the ultimate dream of any fantasy artist,” he says.
"Putting aside the mechanics of the card and emotional attachments to certain pieces, ‘Myojin of Blooming Dawn’, from the Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty set, is certainly my favourite card in terms of art.
“I was totally free to design a Myojin from scratch. I read a lot about Shinto and of course gathered lots of references, and tried to depict my version of a Myojin for the set. Unlike my most dark and wicked works, this particular one was like fresh air for me. I am proud of that particular illustration,” Koroglu explains.
And yet, there’s one crossover he’s itching for to be added into the Magic the Gathering: Universes Beyond pantheon.
“Star Wars,” he says with certainty. “I am a true Star Wars geek, since childhood.”
“Nothing in the world gives me the thrill of a lightsaber sound. Maybe a Wookie roar can compete with that,” he jokes.
The Force is certainly strong with Magic the Gathering right now - so who knows what’s next?