“Have you seen it yet?”

“Not in person, I haven’t”

“Check it out!”

Steve Sunu, the Global Product Marketing Manager for Secret Lair, debuted the line’s newest product at MagicCon Minneapolis during the I’ve Got a Secret (Lair) Panel. It was a full deck for only the second time in Secret Lair history, and as I stood there at Justine Jones’ booth before the madness of the hall was let loose, I had a chance to flip through for a first look. I’d never quite seen something like it before.

From Cute to Brute is a complete five-color Commander deck featuring 10 brand new artworks (plus two more for the bonus secret card), and is largely based around double-faced cards. But these aren’t just any flip cards. The fronts are each illustrated by Nana Qi, and are without a doubt the most adorable thing you’ve seen this year in Magic. But the reverse takes a much harsher turn, as the “Brute” side is illustrated entirely with the dark details of Godmachine. The deck is the intersection of dichotomy and juxtaposition, two ends of a spectrum placed opposite one another to function as a complete whole. The meshing of these styles isn’t something we’ve seen before in Magic, and to be honest, it’s bloody brilliant.

The deck was on sale beginning Monday, May 8, 2023 (the first weekday after it debuted at MagicCon Minneapolis), and only lasted until May 22, selling through completely in less than a month! It’s quite fast compared to the current 60-day Secret Lair window, and unlike its predecessor that took more than a year to fulfill, it began shipping immediately; I started working on this article shortly after I got back from the event, and I was able to play the deck the very next weekend after it arrived. So while this article might be a bit dated by the time it hits your screen, this deck was just too fun not to talk about.

Today we’ll take a closer look at the new artwork and even hear from both artists about their contributions to this brand new project.

Nana Qi—The “Cute” Side

Nana Qi, Self-Portrait

New York based illustrator and sculptor Nana Qi (credited as PuffyGator on her first card, an adorable squirrel token) has illustrated eight cards for Magic: The Gathering, and has now become the go-to artist when the game searches for what can be called a “cute” commission. These new artworks extend her personal work into her client work and on the grandest scale; bright colors, lots of motion, and a side dish of extra fluffiness.

She’s able to take the ominous, and fill it with hope:

Westvale Abbey by Nana Qi. Digital.

And the usually terrifying and make them friendly!

Bloodline Keeper by Nana Qi. Digital.

The powerful become peaceful,

Archangel Avacyn by Nana Qi. Digital.

And the supernatural seem as if they could simply be your neighbor.

Esika, God of the Tree by Nana Qi. Digital.

There is an inherent warmth to Nana’s artwork; it makes you smile when you see. And she’s still telling stories in these tiny illustrative boxes. Just look at our two baby dragons, the twins Ugin and Nicol. Long before there was a feud and eons before the constant battle, they were friends, and they were brothers.

Nicol Bolas, the Ravager by Nana Qi. Digital

I asked her if she could sum up this collection in a few words:

“I was asked to help create the From Cute to Brute double sided set, and thought it’d be a real fun set to play! I made sure the art was extra cute to best contrast the flip side, which the other artist did incredible work on. Nicol and his brother were my favorite out of the bunch, baby dragons oh yes!”

But this is just one half of the story, a part of the paradox. Let’s turn the turntables, and flip the cards.

Godmachine—The “Brute” Side

Godmachine, the artist. Image: MightyJaxx

The backside of these double-faced cards are no longer cuddly, oh no. UK artist and horror art pioneer Godmachine’s work is harshly detailed and grimly severe, and I mean those as a compliment! It’s the perfect contradiction to the cuteness we see on the front.

What were once symbols of hope have become statues of pure power,

Nicol Bolas, the Arisen by Godmachine. Digital.

Warped, hardened, and relentless,

Avacyn, the Purifier by Godmachine. Digital.

Twisted versions of what they once were,

Lord of Lineage by Godmachine. Digital.

And yet in their own eyes, so much more.

Ormendahl, Profane Prince by Godmachine. Digital.

If cuteness is inherent, then to be ‘brute’ is a path, a merciless and demanding journey that only few survive. And they want it that way.

The Prismatic Bridge by Godmachine. Digital.

I was able to touch base with Godmachine himself, and he took me on a winding path of inspiration, participation, and revelation:

“Working with MTG has been new and exciting and I’ve learned a lot. They are so good at letting the artist bring their style to the cards whilst keeping true to the characters, I’m learning how to do this as I’ve always made my own characters in that sense. I thought the idea of Cute to Brute was so good, and I couldn’t believe I was to be part of this. Not many people know I love cute style art- especially if it’s of cats, I have no blinkers when it comes to cute shit. My fave card would have to be insect aberration – I could draw him over and over again- very kafkaesque.

“The absolute best thing about the time working with magic has been the fans though- they have helped me understand how the games universe works and guided me in my work which has been priceless. I have a few friends that role play and I’ve always been interested- but- now I feel like part of this huge gang, and I love it. Thank you guys, who knows maybe one day I’ll learn to play- for now though I love hearing about the stories and staring at all the artwork”

Who would have guessed an artist known for reinventing contemporary horror likes cute cats?!

Wrapping Up

It’s no easy task to take something completely divergent and make it complimentary, but the relationship between the art of Nana Qi and Godmachine is a match made in heaven…or hell, depending on your perspective.

From Cute to Brute is one of those ideas that Secret Lair is built for; when I saw it for the first time, I said to myself, “Of course, why hadn’t they done this yet?” because it resonated immediately. With folks like Steve making sure these products hit, and Emily Floyd, Senior Business Manager for Secret Lair, making sure the decks are ready and getting into people’s hands ASAP, I think we’re in for a real treat in the coming months and years. Secret Lair has basically been my favorite thing in Magic since it came out, and I don’t see that anytime soon. For all those people that make it a reality, from the artists and Art Directors and everyone through the end of the The Prismatic Bridge, a deep and heartfelt thank you.

I’m fairly certain I’m going to bring the deck in its stock form to Commandfest Baltimore for folks that want some preconstructed deck games. I’ll be there as a guest of Star City Games, and cannot wait to jam some games with you all! If you’re headed that way make sure you stop by and say hi!

And as an aside, Nana is currently working on 1/1 traditional repaints for each of these works, and I’ll be bringing them to market just as soon as they’re finished. While these were digital paintings for the cards, she’s quite adept in traditional media and will be working that way for Magic moving forward!

Looking ahead, Magic’s eye is fully fixed on the newest Universes Beyond release, Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle Earth, and my next article here will focus on newly released art from that set. As a reminder, there is NO traditional art of any kind due to copyright agreements, so we’ll be delving into the digital realm entirely for the very first time. I’ll see you all back in two weeks to go on our own adventure, and as always, thanks for reading.

Donny Caltrider (he/him) is a Senior Writer at Hipsters of Coast writing about all things related to the art of Magic: The Gathering and the larger imaginative realism genre. 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. When he’s not writing for Hipsters or working with artists, you can find him traveling with his wife, petting his two cats, and watching the Baltimore Orioles.

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