Good morning everyone, and welcome back to the Mirror Gallery on this crispest of March mornings. Today I have the distinct pleasure to introduce Ben Schnuck, one of Magic’s newest artists and the artist behind the Shades Not Included Secret Lair! This collection of five basic lands blends the fantasy world of Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty with the real-life synthwave movement of the 1980s, creating a style never before seen in Magic.

Today we’ll meet the man behind these artworks and learn exactly how he got here; welcome to the Synthwave Future of Ben Schnuck.

Behind the Brush

Ben Schnuck hails from none other than Bel Air, MD, not an hour from my very own hometown, but currently resides in Denton, TX as a 21 year old senior at the University of North Texas. He is studying full time as a double major in Computer Engineering and Math; if ever there was a STEAM artist, you’re looking at him folks. And now he’s an official artist for Magic: the Gathering.

Ben began playing Magic in 2019 when he started working at his local LGS, and after opening his first pack, the rest is literally history. Our story begins shortly after lockdown in early 2020, when a bored in the house and in the house bored college student took to his computer to create some Magic proxies for webcam Commander games. These early proxies, done under the pseudonym BentoBoxProxies, were a creative outlet to explore his newfound love of Magic alongside a longstanding passion for math and science. Mix in some Photoshop and Illustrator Youtube tutorials and voila, he was on to something entirely unique.

As Ben said, he doesn’t like to “whole-ass anything” but rather “half-ass a lot of things.” He’s a regular Renaissance man of the 2020s. After a handful of cards, it would be the basic lands that really exploded on Twitter.

The original Bento Box Proxies Basic Lands

These first lands caught fire almost immediately, and grabbed the attention of some of Magic’s biggest content creators. Schnuck remembers in particular that The Professor of Tolarian Community College retweeted the Mountain—he would later give the new lands an A grade in his Secret Lair review video.

An anecdotal aside: in October of 2020 Schnuck was working on these proxy lands at the same time the domain name for what would become Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty was purchased and rumors began around this new set. He said to himself that he needed to finish them well before this rumored set would release, lest he be potentially competing with something stylistically very similar. Little did he know his push to finish these first lands was actually just himself competing with future Ben. If that’s the most Neon Dynasty thing I’ve ever heard.

As you’ll see, Schnuck draws his inspiration from a variety of places. His Magic art hero is John Avon, who has illustrated more than 100 different basic lands since he began with the game in 1996. His favorite Magic artwork is Embereth Shieldbreaker by Jeremy Wilson, another artist who dares to do something different within the frame of the game. He’s energized by the work of other artists in the Magic alter community, from the work of Meghan Burden (aka Sheepwave) to that of ALK Alters, an artist I myself collaborated with on my Magic Artist Wishlist last year.

He loves 80s retro styling and the outrun/synthwave genre on the whole, from artists like Kavinsky and Gunship to movies like Drive and the Tron franchise. He was born after the year 2000, yes, but he chases that neon sun all the same.

Everything we’ve learned about the artist thus far, each interest and skill and passion, are what made these lands possible. I mentioned that those first basic lands got a lot of attention from Magic content creators, but they weren’t the only folks watching.

Shades Not Included

On what was a very normal day in May of 2021, Schnuck received a Twitter DM from an account with no photo and 12 followers. That mystery account of “jenkyt” belongs to none other than Magic: the Gathering Project Booster Fun and Secret Lair Art Director Tom Jenkot. Ben was getting the proverbial call to the big leagues and the instructions were simple, but yet complicated: to do it again, but this time it would be on a real Magic card.

After signing Wizards contracts while on vacation at the Grand Canyon, Schnuck began work on these five lands in early July 2021, with just over a month until the August 15th deadline. He was in the thick of some of the most difficult summer classes he’d taken; but every YouTube tutorial, outrun album cover, movie soundtrack and printed proxy from the year previous had prepared him for this moment.

For these lands, work began in a 3D Modeler, and then moved to Photoshop. As most Magic commissions go, Ben created a sketch for each work, sent to Jenkot for approval, and then either revised or moved to what would become the final render. He knew that the sun with bars, perhaps the single most recognizable icon from the 1980s, had to be in there. It was something he had included in his original proxy land designs, but now having the sun in the same place would make this new series read as a more cohesive cycle in Magic terms.

Beyond the singular sun there was room for creativity and flexibility. Some works look very much like their preliminary sketches, while others underwent significant changes. Let’s look in WUBRG order:

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The first Plains sketch looked too much like a Legendary, or at the very least, Non-Basic land, so the temple and beam of light had to be shifted from the front and center. The addition of a second sun and the endless undulating foreground fit the bill perfectly; it was now unique, but still very much a Plains.

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For the Island, the curved land bridge obstructed too much of the synthwave sun, so a more traditional Island landmass (a la John Avon’s Unstable Island) was drawn in its place.

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The Swamp needed only a bit of a color change and the addition of some spooky bits, though it provided Ben the existential opportunity to ponder exactly “What is a Swamp?” and look back on many past examples from the game. (His favorite is this swamp by Jung Park)

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The Mountain stayed very true to its initial form. It is the favorite of the artist, and he feels that it is both dynamic and a geometric triumph, covering the sun the perfect amount and yet not losing any of its visibility as a mountain in this style.

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It would be the Forest that was the ultimate challenge, and from “Through the Trees” to a “Mother Tree” to a bit of both, this land underwent several iterations until finally arriving at the final as you see it printed on the card. I think being able to see this process is absolutely brilliant: it allows us the opportunity to see an artist at work, navigating problems and ultimately finding solutions that create a seamless and legible artwork for the card

Schnuck couldn’t say enough good things about Jenkot, calling him “the most kind and patient individual” as he worked through this process for the first (and hopefully not the last) time.

These five cards look a bit over a month from start to finish, created in-between college classes but with all the creativity of a full-time freelance artist. They are something truly special.

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Wrapping Up

I hope you all enjoyed getting to meet the man behind the Synthwave Future, and one of Magic’s newest artists Ben Schnuck. I spoke with him over Discord for more than an hour, and found myself simply smiling at his enthusiasm for the game we all love. Ben loves Magic, and his five cards are important to him not because of what he accomplished, but because of the doors it may have opened for those coming after him. His basic lands will forever hold a very unique place in Magic’s history, the first of their kind and perhaps the predecessor of an entirely new stylistic take on what a basic land can be.

We finished up our conversation with me asking what it felt like to be an official artist working on Magic: the Gathering. He said: “I love this game. All I want to do is talk about it and play it, and now I’m a part of it. It’s fantastic. I’m on Cloud 10.”

He hopes that his work will continue to break the boundaries of what art can be on a Magic card, and that Wizards will continue to look to the fan art and altertist community for future talent on projects. He’s got some exciting things in the works, from limited prints to APs and sketches to publishing “video diaries” that will take us even more behind the scenes on the creation of each of these lands. He’s also a Guest Artist on fellow Magic artist Aaron Miller’s Patreon this month, so make sure to check that out too.

You can find him most active on Twitter, where he does read every single reply, so don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation. You can also join his very own Patreon for the very first look at what he has coming up.

Looking forward, I’ve got one more Neon Dynasty-centric article planned for the end of this month before we start steaming straight towards the Streets of New Capenna. It’s going to be quite the Spring from what we’ve seen so far, and you won’t want to miss it.

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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