Wizards of the Coast and Magic the Gathering have been embracing diversity in fantasy storytelling. With a beautifully adapted Lord of the Rings set that was released earlier in 2023 and The Lost Caverns of Ixalan set, it’s a beautiful time to see yourself represented in fantasy, in ways that haven’t been present before. This month, Magic the Gathering released a stellar Mesoamerican-inspired set, The Lost Caverns of Ixalan that brought to life gods, places, the dinosaurs of the Yucatan, and reimagined conquistadors as vampires. The set was immediately recognizable as one of the sharpest and most informed explorations of Mesoamerican myth and beauty in fantasy. To talk about this, we spoke with Art Director Ovidio Cartagena about The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, the cards’ art inspiration, working with historians, and what it means to represent Latin America in one of the most notable Fantasy franchises in pop culture.
From the colors to the landscapes and names of the cards themselves, The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, we asked Cartagena about the process of bringing Mesoamerican mythology and visuals into Magic’s fantasy format and adapting multiple cultures throughout Latin America into what we see in Ixalan. He explained, “We looked at thousands of images… We did a lot of research, and of course, we had two cultural consultants, and Miguel [Lopez, Game Designer] and I were both of Latin American descent. I grew up back in Guatemala and even made paintings based on stuff that I used to see when I grew up there for this set. And so, we peppered that set with a lot of references. We want to get people to look at Copan, Palenque, and at Machu Picchu—even the sky gondolas that you take when you go to Colombia or Bolivia. We were looking at a lot of things and it’s the big empires, right? [The ones] who built the big things and those are the records that we have left. That’s what you can reference [in] the Codex, like the Codex Madrid…”
But it wasn’t just the ancient past that The Lost Caverns of Ixalan is inspired by, but also the cultures of Latinos and Latin America flourishing in their vibrancy and cultural beauty today. He explained, “We started going into references from real life like cascarones, alebrijes, many things from living Latin American culture [today], the huipiles, the quipu, and the way that the indigenous villages like Santa Catarina Palopó decorate their walls and see the colorful buildings on the side of the hill. That’s a modern development but the patterns are Maya.”
The uniqueness of The Lost Caverns of Ixalan set wasn’t lost on Cartagena who talked about the importance and responsibility of bringing it to life with his team. “We were very inspired in our travels, in our lives, and in our studies, and it is something I said during the development of concept art was fantasy is very associated with medieval or Gothic or Roman, and this year, many sets that have medieval themes are going to come up, many sets that have Roman themes are going to come up, and maybe [The Lost Caverns of Ixalan] is going to be the only one or one of the only ones that are going to have a Mesoamericano or Latino feel.
“There was a lot of responsibility in keeping the motif true and honest. And it’s a tough balance, right? You don’t want just to copy what you see in real life; you want to alter it; you want to give it a fantasy look because these are unique peoples and unique cultures that we created for beautiful cards, and they have their own motivations and their own history and their own problems that they have to deal with in their own world of Ixalan.”
The world of Ixalan is beautiful, with the full story available for fans to read. The Lost Caverns of Ixalan is the second set in the Omenpath Arc and takes place a year after the events of March of the Machine. Here, players revisit Ixalan, the plane packed with pirates and dinosaurs. Things have changed since the disappearance of the Immortal Sun. Once again, there is a scramble as the groups race toward the center of Ixalan in search of a new resource: cosmium. Once they get past the caves, they find that Ixalan is a hollow world with Ixalan’s Core in the middle and lit by Chimil, its sun. An ancient civilization, ancestors of the Sun Empire, uses the magic of Chimil to grow in power.
Taking on the Hollow Earth trope, Magic has embraced the genre to build out a whole new world of beauty, danger, and above all else, complexity. When asked about the set’s story, Ovidio Cartagena explains, “I think Miguel [Lopez] added in the story, a lot of complexity to the Plane and to the characters, and the sun empire to Alta Torrezon, and to the Oltec as well. There are always two sides to everything. With the Oltec, you have Akal Pakal and Anim Pakal and they both have very different philosophies. One is about collaboration, and one is about conquest. And it’s the same in the Sun Empire, you have Caparocti and Inti bent on conquest, you know, taking the war to Alta Torrezon, striking while they are weak.”
The complexity of The Lost Caverns of Ixalan is explored in its characters and paths to progress. He continued, “Then in Alta Torrezon you have different beliefs. You have… Amalia [Benavides] on one side but on the other side, you have Vito [Quijano de Pasamonte], this really relentless vampire. Still, there are even vampires who don’t know that the blood that they’re consuming is innocent. So, there’s, there’s a lot of nuance. There’s a lot of complexity. We wanted to seed the set with the depth of history, just like you would with any civilization. Now, the Brazen Coalition is looking for a land. They’re looking to establish themselves. The Malamet are just incredibly wise to the point that they brokered a deal with a deadly Mycotyrant with whom nobody can strike a deal with a Mycotyrant. So that’s another of the things that I liked putting in the set. The engineering, the negotiation skills, and all measures of progress are not warfare. Right? So, there are so many ideological components to advancement, and we put that into the set.”
At this point, Magic: The Gathering is a behemoth of a game. It is central to fantasy and pop culture, has a presence at nearly every gaming convention, and has a community that only continues to grow since its creation in 1993. But still, even with its longstanding place in pop culture history, every Magic set can be someone’s first. A recent study about the representation of Latinos in film showed that despite making up the largest ethnic minority in the United States, at just under 20%, representation on screen only accounts for 3.1% of lead actors in shows, 1.5% of showrunners, and 1.3% of directors in television series—an abysmal rate. In fantasy? It’s even less. We asked Cartagena what it means to him that The Lost Caverns of Ixalan may be how someone finds the wonderful world of Magic: The Gathering.
Ovidio Cartagena answered, “It’s one of the most inspiring things about working for Magic: The Gathering, that we get a chance to do something like this. I can think of a handful of studios that would let us do this, but not in the way we did it [here]. I really have a lot to think for the vision team of Mark Rosewater, Doug Beyer, and Jess Lanzillo, who like just helped us move this forward.”
He continued, “If one little kid gets inspired by this, I’m fine. I hope it’s many. I’ve had that experience where someone tells me this gave them inspiration. They give them ideas. That’s enough. If you make one career with this, if you make one person throw themselves into art more or one person pursue fantasy, or just one person to just reconnect with their relatives, that’s a lot to me. That means a lot. Fans have come up and said that. When fans reach out, when fans tell me how it impacted their lives, it makes a lot of difference. We put a lot into this, and we were very happy we came up with what we did.”
We come to fantasy, to games to escape, but that escape can be a vital source of creative inspiration and community. To see ourselves reflected in what we love is no small token. It can be the creation of a new generation of players, of artists, of storytellers. May The Lost Caverns of Ixalan be that for someone.