Today in the Mirror Gallery, we have another edition of my Behind the Brush series. Once again a special guest joins me. This artist started illustrating for Magic twelve years ago, and since has done over 200 card illustrations for the game. He contributed to the concept push for Guilds of Ravnica, and did a total of fifteen cards over the three latest Ravnica—including an exceptional eight cards for War of the Spark. Today we get to learn about his career, his work on Ravnica, and what’s next for him as an artist.

Let’s go Behind the Brush with Mike “Daarken” Lim!

Good morning Daarken! Welcome to the Mirror Gallery here on Hipsters of the Coast. I like to start with an introduction, so: Who are you, where are you from, and what do you do?

Hi! Thanks for having me. My name is Daarken and I’ve been working professionally in the gaming industry since 2004. I’m originally from Texas, but I went to school at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. The bulk of my work consists of card game illustrations and concept art for video games.

I have to do this, even though I’m sure you’ve been asked 1000 times; what is the origin of the ‘Daarken’ pseudonym?

Hah! My real name is Mike, which is really common. When I was working at Mythic Entertainment, three of the nine concept artists were named Mike. I wanted something that stood out, something that people would remember. Back when I was in school everyone always said my art was dark, both in style and tone, so I decided “Daarken” would be a good name. I added an extra “a” because it would be weird if it was just “Darken.”

Battle of Mud by Daarken. Digital. For GP Tokyo 2016 Playmat.

How did you get started with Magic? Are there any memorable moments or favorite cards from your career over the years?

I started working on D&D for Wizards of the Coast back in 2004. I think I did that for about a year before I asked my AD (Art Director) if I could work on Magic. Luckily they said yes! The first time my art appeared on a booster pack was pretty exciting. One of my first illustrations, Korlash, Heir to Blackblade, appeared on a Future Sight booster pack. My AD really hooked me up with that one. They never tell you when your art is on a booster pack, so it’s always a big surprise when you go to the store and see your art.

Korlash, Heir to Blackblade by Daarken. Digital.

Fast forward to now, with Ravnica and War of the Spark: you were on the concept push for the Guilds of Ravnica block. For those who might not know what that is, can you tell us a bit more about what that means and what you did?

Whenever there is a new block, Wizards of the Coast brings in a group of artists to concept the entire world of that block. That means characters, environments, interiors, exteriors, weapons, creatures, you name it. The group can be anywhere from three to five concept artists, not including the in-house artists. We then have three weeks to come up with as many concepts as we can. Depending on how big the block is, there might be one or two concept pushes, not including cleanup by in-house artists.

WotC is pretty laid back about the process. For the first week or two you can work on whatever you want, an you don’t have an AD breathing down your neck. By the final week the designs have been narrowed down enough that artists can receive more specific tasks. Maybe merfolk need some gaps filled or big blue fliers, so those tasks are assigned to certain artists. Guilds of Ravnica was very character heavy, so I only worked on characters for that push. I always try to hit every faction so that I can get a broad stroke of what the world looks like. I was all over the place for the War of the Spark push. I worked on environments, color plates, creatures, effects, story shots, architecture, the Parhelion, and . . . I think that’s it.

Dimir, Golgari & Simic Character Concepts for Guilds of Ravnica by Daarken. Digital.

Rakdos Character Concept for Guild of Ravnica by Daarken, Digital. This concept would go on to inspire and become the basis for Judith, Scourge Dive, illustrated by Wesley Burt.

You had a few cards in each Guilds of Ravnica and Ravnica Allegiance, but you have EIGHT card illustrations in War of the Spark! That’s an incredible number! How did that come about? Were they all from one commission cycle, or did things get moved around?

War of the Spark Illustrations by Daarken. Digital.

Commissions are always grouped into “waves.” Most of the time I work on two or three cards per wave, and there are usually two waves per set. How many cards you get per wave depends on the artist’s availability and what needs commissioning. Sometimes I have a light month where I don’t have any other commissions from other clients, so I ask if I can do four cards instead of three. If my schedule is really full, I might only ask for two. They really hooked me up on War of the Spark. Looking back, I probably should have done some traditional pieces, hah! I always say I’m going to try oils again, but I never have time. I haven’t painted with oils since the Academy, so I’m pretty rusty

Well that would certainly be exciting to see a Daarken Magic traditional painting! We’ll be watching for that.

Let’s take a closer look and group up your WAR illustrations: you had two Planeswalkers, Davriel, Rogue Shadowmage and Ugin, the Ineffable. Tell me about what went into these two:

Ugin, the Ineffable by Daarken. Digital.

These two commissions were actually really far apart. I did the Ugin painting super early in the process, way back in 2017 just a month after the concept push ended. At the time I was at Valve working on the Artifact concept push, so after my 9-6 gig with Valve, I would go back to the hotel and make dinner for my family and go to bed around 10. Then I would wake up at 1 or 2am and work on my Magic cards before I had to start my day again with Valve.

Davriel, Rogue Shadowmage Full Art vs. Card Crop

Davriel wasn’t commissioned until a year later. The brief called for the typical planeswalker aspect ratio, but I felt like you couldn’t see enough of the city. I think the city itself is a big character in the story, so I wanted to show more of it. It also didn’t help that Davriel has this big shadowy cloak type thing that covers up a lot of real estate. In the end I decided to make this a widescreen illustration, even though I didn’t have to and it would require a lot more time and work.

Davriel is a very cool artwork and one of my favorites from the set. I’m sure you’re going to get requests for a playmat. It would make a great one!

In addition to the Planeswalkers you had THREE Story Spotlights in The Elder Spell, Command the Dreadhorde, and Prison Realm. You literally told the story of the defeat, the turn of the tide, and triumph against Bolas. How did it feel to illustrate such pivotal moments?

Top to Bottom: The Elder Spell, Command the Dreadhorde, and Prison Realm by Daarken. Digital.

It’s pretty crazy that I got to illustrate these moments. Like I said before, they really hooked me up with this set. I guess it didn’t really dawn on me at the time that I was telling the story of the battle because the process was spread out over two years. Instead it was more like “oh cool, I got this commission for this really cool illustration.”

I think I had my “OMG” moment when I saw the trailer; it was hands down the best Magic trailer I’ve ever seen. I was even more surprised when there were shots that looked very similar to my Command the Dreadhorde illustration. I’m guessing I was allowed to illustrate these moments because I concepted them during the push: I got to design the Elderspell, the look of the spark, the harvesting process, the moment Liliana breaks her contract, and Bolas’s defeat.

That’s incredible, not only that you concepted such important facets of this set but that you got to carry them through to full render. It really shows; they’re amazing paintings.

Your last three cards all feature title characters, including the never-ending battle between Sorin and Nahiri. Did any of these create a particular challenge?

Davriel’s Shadowfugue, Sorin’s Thirst, and Finale of Eternity by Daarken. Digital.

Oh man, that Sorin and Nahiri piece was really hard for me. Back when I was working on that painting, I ‘vaguebooked’ about how much trouble I was having on a painting. This was that painting. There were a lot of elements I needed to have in the painting that made it hard. I had to show a fight between two named characters, which means you need to see both of their faces. Depicting a dynamic fight between two people while seeing both of their faces is hard enough, but to make things harder, they were supposed to be fighting on the arm of the giant Bolas statue.

Somehow I had to show they were on the arm of a giant statue, but also be zoomed in far enough that you could actually see Sorin and Nahiri, but also see the rest of the Bolas statue as well. That means there was going to be some crazy foreshortening, which can be really hard when you are just trying to paint it from imagination. I’ve noticed that making maquettes is getting more common, so I probably should have tried making one of Bolas. I guess I could always steal my kid’s play-doh. I basically just took an action figure and tried to take a photo of it in the position I needed.

Is there anything else you’d like to share or tell us about your work on Ravnica and War of the Spark, from concept push to final illustrations?

It was a real honor to work on this block alongside the other amazing artists and designers. I always have severe imposter syndrome, so I’m grateful that WotC keeps me busy.

Interior Illustration for Dungeons & Dragons Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica by Daarken. Digital. Also for Wizards of the Coast.

You’ve certainly earned your place among the best in the game, Daarken.

As of the writing of this article you’ve illustrated 223 pieces of Magic card art. Do you have more in the Magic pipeline in future sets?

Oh yeah. We are usually a year ahead, so there are a lot of cards I’ve painted that haven’t come out yet. Sometimes I actually forget about some illustrations because it takes so long for them to come out. I think I have about 19 more that are finished and I’m currently working on another four

Wow, that’s a lot to look forward to! On that, what’s your dream Magic commission? Anything you haven’t illustrated that you really want to?

I think it would be awesome to have my art on a booster box. I actually did an illustration for a booster box, but unfortunately things didn’t work out.

Maybe it could be one of those 20 in the hopper? I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled now too.

And finally, where can folks find you on the internet if they want to follow your work or buy your stuff?

I have a one-stop shop at From there you can find my portfolio, store, tutorials, mentorship, and blog.

Daarken, thanks so much for hanging out this morning and talking to us about your massive contribution to Magic’s newest set and the Ravnica block in general. Its artists like yourself that shape the game we love, and Magic is fortunate to have you. We‘ll be looking forward to your next 222 cards!

Thank you, I really appreciate it!

Wrapping Up

I hope you all enjoyed this artist perspective on the Ravnica block and War of the Spark; it never ceases to amaze me the tiny details that go into creating the worlds that make up Magic. The creativity of folks like Daarken is absolutely crucial to the entire process, and without Magic’s consistent artistic innovation, we just wouldn’t have this game as we experience it today.

Looking forward, I have one more War of the Spark related article, my Art Grand Tour, coming in two weeks, and after that we will be straight into Modern Horizons and as of right now unknown territory in terms of what art there is to look at and talk about. There will also be continuing content following the development of Whimsy, Wonder & War: A Magic Show, the first exhibition of original Magic art on the East Coast that was announced on Monday. The team and I have been hard at work over the last few weeks laying solid groundwork, and already have some exceptional works of art lined up for display; make sure you stay tuned for what’s coming and plan to attend IX 12 in late October for this one of a kind, up close and personal experience with Magic.

Remember, to see original #mtgart and other #vorthos related things, follow me on Twitter. Feel free to ask questions or retweet to continue the conversation. Thanks and see you next time!

Donny Caltrider has been playing Magic since 2002 and collecting original Magic art since 2017. He has an M.A. in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University and enjoys telling stories about art, objects, and the intersection of fantasy with real-life. You can find him on Twitter talking about #mtgart, museums, and other #vorthos related goodness. Follow along and continue the conversation!

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