Jesse T: Greetings, planeswalker. If you’ve spent any time on Kaladesh recently, you may have noticed a lot of arabesque architecture and fake exotic words. That’s because Kaladesh is a mystical realm conjured from the minds of the Wizards of the Coast, a coterie of mages in Renton, Washington, on the plane of Earth, and inspired by the myths and legends of whatever location the average American high school graduate might point to if asked to identify Afghanistan on a map. Kaladesh is Wizards’ most recent foray into the exciting world of vague orientalism, but it’s certainly not their first. Long before Kaladesh, there was Rabiah, the setting of today’s Arabian Nights Art Safari. Come along with us, on a Magic cardboard ride!
T: On your left you’ll see the Army of Allah riding into battle, and on your right… Oh Jesus. Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Arabian Nights was incredibly racist. Look at all these cards talking about the purity of bloodlines and giving white creatures +2 power. I’d like to say Magic’s come a long way since then, but they did just bring back dwarves as a creature type, and the Gatewatch is still whiter than a Christian pop group. Thankfully the art has gotten a lot more consistent, and we don’t get these kinds of weird 2D horses with human eyes anymore.
K: There are a lot of cards in this set that you could reasonably declare problematic (Summon leper! How fun!), and yet it gets some things right that I feel like Kaladesh has missed. A big source on my thinking on this issue is informed by this great blog by an Indian-American Magic player and fellow flavor nerd. To me it feels like Kaladesh promised an intriguing look at the stories, creatures, and characters of a culture underutilized in fantasy. Instead we got a steampunk world wrapped in onion domes and Indian-sounding proper nouns. In fact, there’s almost no utilization of the region’s rich storytelling traditions. Arabian Nights, for all its flaws, does actually show some amount of respect for and interest in the culture it’s pulling from. It takes risks in introducing Magic players to things they may not have seen before. It features mythological top-down designs, both well-known and obscure. It even quotes the Quran! In a positive way! Would Wizards ever attempt this in 2016?
K: Much of the flavor of this set comes from Middle Eastern mythological sources, like the 1001 Nights (obvs) or the Voyages of Sinbad, where this island fish is from. I loved my mythology and this is exactly the kind of colorful story that would’ve made a big impact on me. The art is certainly of an older style, but I think it matches the mood really well. I have a hard time imagining the current Wizards creative department taking a risk by making a card that introduces players to a myth rather than reminding them of tropes they’re already familiar with.
T: Can I interest you in some beachfront property? Who wouldn’t want to live on the back of a giant fish? I would. This is a great concept with a classic design. Jasconius is represented as a 7-mana 6/8 with downsides, which really hasn’t helped me find investors for my timeshare, so I’m glad this isn’t what our leviathans and sea monsters are like anymore. It took a while, but I’m glad they finally figured out that blue creatures are more fun if they don’t die when you take them out of the water.
K: This is an exceptional piece of Magic art and stands among Shivan Dragon, Black Lotus, and Serra Angel as one of the most iconic and memorable. That being said, there’s a real inconsistency with the way djinn are represented in this set. Are they buff green dudes, buff red dudes, or full-on devil men? Maybe it’s fine if different artists have radically different interpretations of what a creature looks like, but it’s one argument in favor of some sort of style guide.
T: The style guide has got to be the single biggest improvement made to this game since primordial times. Maybe one of the reasons they didn’t start using one earlier is because it kind of worked out okay for this set. Primary sources are just as vague and contradictory about the appearances of djinn and efreets as Ice Age was about the appearance of a Balduvian. Juicy Juzam has really stood the test of time, and stands among the guy on Demonic Appetite as one of Magic‘s most recognizable horned figures.
T: King Suleiman holds the Staff of Asclepius because some efreets are about to need an ambulance. This is one of those cards that quotes the Quran. As much as I like using real-world literature as a source of inspiration for fantasy, I don’t think an actual religion’s sacred text is a great place to start. Conflating the Quran with 1001 Nights is kind of derogatory, like quoting the Bible in the same set as the Paradise Lost, but Magic has also done that, so it’s kind of a moot point.
K: Uh-oh, looks like someone’s got a case of can’t-draw-arms. Or legs I suppose. Or, really anything beyond the comedically oversized head with an upturned bucket on it. King Suleiman appears to hold court in the starfields of Nyx, and I’m not about the look up whether that’s canonically accurate.
K: Sure it looks like a still from the I Believe I Can Fly video, but dang that flavor text is so good. I think… I think I like this set. Although there’s little in common with the source material, the Island of wak-wak is an actual location in Philippine folklore. Despite a high nonsense-to-accuracy ratio, I like that there’s some attempt here to expose Magic players to interesting stories from around the world. Rather than, you know, slightly changing the costumes worn by the main characters.
T: This card mentions an island and a tribe of winged people, neither of which are pictured on the card itself. In fact, this picture doesn’t really seem to contain land of any kind. Maybe a more accurate name would be “Taj Mahal Trust Fall” or “A Sequins of Unfortunate Vests”.
T: Arabian Nights drew its inspiration from many ancient mythological texts, including the works of Ernest Hemingway. While he may be an old man, he’s also incredibly tenacious, and difficult to break free from once he gets you in his deadly scissor lock. They’ve since errataed marid to djinn, which never made sense in the first place because it says old man right there in the name. It should obviously be a “Summon Old Man”.
K: Nerf Old Man of the Sea, please. All you have to do is keep spamming low kick and he does this really unfair unblockable grapple move. It’s interesting that we’ve decided to keep efreet and djinn, but ditch marid, since it’s got just as much cred as a creature. Maybe their decision to inextricably tie their first and only depiction in Magic to an entirely non-magical appearing old man has something to do with their failure to really take off in the popular imagination.
T: And now, if you look to your left, you’ll see a Mountain, the only basic land in Rabiah. Why is it there? Who knows? Legend has it that in the time before time, Mark Rosewater spilled his cereal on the design document, and the milk and corn flakes became the heavens and earth. That’s enough questions for now, folks. Please ignore the pine trees.
K: Did you know that instead of foiling, some super-rare cards in Arabian Nights were printed in velvet? A lot of the artifacts in this set were following the visual motif of magical object floating before abstract background. Seeing the artifacts in use? Forget it! These things are fragile, you can’t touch em’. That lamp costs 55 mana, and if you break it, you buy it. Besides, that would mean we’d have to think a little bit about what a card did before handing it off to an artist. While it’s obvious why we’ve moved away from this trend, it does give a kind of nostalgic first edition DnD feel to the cards.
T: I just love the design of these artifacts. Which ring do I like more? Ring of Ma’ruf was forged in the likeness of Andre the Giant, and when you wear it, it looks like you’re sticking your finger in his mouth. It lets you draw a card you own from outside the game. Sorry, I mean outside the game! Can you believe it? Aladdin’s ring is haunted by the ghost of a skrull from Fantastic Four, and it lets me deal massive damage to anyone I want as long as I obey its every command. Personally, I prefer to be free from the command of evil wizards. I only want my rings to say “OBEY” ironically.
T: Aladdin, pictured here as an elderly Vietnamese man, is the second-greatest thief in the multiverse. The card is a great top-down design of the character, but the art is truly horrible. Apparently Aladdin found his famous lamp in a grove of polka-dot bedsheets surrounded by a white featureless background. You can literally see where Julie Baroh gave up and stopped trying to color things in. Al’s going to need way more than 3 wishes to fix everything that’s wrong with this picture.
K: I just want to point out that this is not a legendary creature. You can have as many Aladdins as you like. The same goes for Alis from Cairo and Sinbads (which was reprinted to confusing effect in Time Spiral). Why is this? Well, the set actually predates the existence of legends, which premiered in Legends (obvs) a year later. This might be helpful for explaining how this card came to be, but it’s more fun to imagine that there are just all sorts of Aladdins running around stealing lamps and crackin’ wise to genies.
K: It’s a shame this card text is so unnecessarily long, because this card could’ve used some flavor text. Maybe a nice simple “I caught an island fish thiiiiis big,” or “Touchdown!” to just make it the whole package.
T: Apparently Mijae Djinn and Ydwen Efreet are based on a real-life couple who had Richard Garfield as the best man at their wedding. Personally, I think Mijae Djinn can do better. Look at those lats!
K: This was my least favorite Animorphs cover art. At least we can tell by looking at the right half of his face that this guy didn’t lose much in the ways of looks by turning into a snake.
T: At least he got to keep his lustrous blue hair. If there’s hope for Ydwen Efreet, there’s hope for anybody.
K: I don’t have much to say about this art (love it), but I do miss the days when the cards would give you little pro tips right in the rules text. Wrath of God used to read “Destroy all creatures. Try this when they have a lot more than you do, that’ll really get em’.”
T: Everyone knows that Diamond Valley kills your creatures, but does anyone know how? Where did that mysterious skeleton come from? The answer is snakes. The valley is filled with poisonous snakes. You’re welcome.
K: Welcome to The Dark and Twisted Webring! Watch out for flame and skull .gifs and rude rotating text.
T: Due to a tragic necrophagy accident, Khabal Ghoul was born without arms or midriff. Please donate today so we can afford to buy him a something with sleeves instead of that hand-me-down I Dream of Genie halter top, and remember never to eat a creature until its had a chance to regenerate.
K: What a great concept for a land. Too bad this card is so desaturated that I can’t see anything. I guess I’ll take your word for it that there are some cool elephant bones or something in there. In the end, the best art director is your own mind.
T: This was a very interesting concept for a land, especially considering there was only one elephant in Arabian Nights, and no mammoths whatsoever. As much as I like support for obscure tribal decks, they’re a lot more fun when the cards to build the deck actually exist.
K: Well, here it is, the worst art in the set. As gross as this card is to look at, in the context of its time, it does make some sense. Back in 1993 there was no Deviant Art to search for “Bebop, but sexy” on, so you really had to get your kicks wherever you could. For more reading on this topic, I recommend our piece on the male gaze in Magic.
T: Hoo boy! This one’s pretty tough to look at. The artist even put a mole on her cleavage to make sure the viewer’s eye is drawn directly there against its own better judgment. There’s no background to save you either, just another one of those wavy abstract Magic Eye things that were so popular at the time. At least it’s realistic in the sense that an ogre assassin probably wouldn’t waste her time shaving her armpits before going into battle.
K: We’ve had a lot of fun today making fun of some bad art and cultural appropriation, but Arabian Nights has some legit great pictures too. Here are some of the best we haven’t touched on yet:
K: And of course, who could forget Wyluli Wolf?
K: Arabian Nights: Ahead of its time in flavor, ahead of its time in memes.
T: Thanks for reading, everyone! We hope you enjoyed this expedition across the dusty dunes of Rabiah. I don’t know about you, but I certainly have a renewed appreciation for modern Magic conventions such as pairing cards with artwork that looks like the things they’re supposed to represent. We’ll check in on Kaladesh in a few weeks just in case some kind of Aether Revolt happens, but we have some other planes to visit first. See you next time!
You can find Two Jesses on Twitter @TwoJesses.