Altering Commander: A Beginners Guide to Altering an Oblivion Ring by James Griffin

Altering Commander: The Sissay Project by James Griffin

It was real dedication to physical comedy.  I went to an FNM the evening before my stag do last year, and my best man met me there to comeback to my house afterwards. To his credit, he hadn’t ever played M:TG before that night. There was a moment in the evening when one of the other players joked that my impending nuptials meant that I would be ‘o-ringed’ from the hobby.  What was important was that Jon remembered this, went away, googled ‘o-ring’, got hold of a copy of Oblivion Ring and pocketed it on the day of the wedding. He waited patiently until after my bride had entered the church.  When I asked him if he had the rings, he handed me the card instead.  Like I say, timing (and apparently background research) is everything.

All of that was my self indulgent way of saying that O-ring holds a place close to my heart, and so including one in my Sisay Project where I alter every card from a Commander/EDH deck means that I really want to do it justice.  My plans were foiled somewhat however when I realised that it was the perfect card for a beginners guide to altering cards – it’s cheap if you don’t have one to practice on, will cover all the basics without being too complex, and is cool.  The big three.  So, if you’ve ever wanted to alter a card, let’s go!

You’ll need some materials first.  However, you could have a bunch of them around already, so let’s begin by making a pile of stuff:

  • Masking tape to hold the cards down and err… Mask stuff.
  • Cocktail sticks to remove unwanted paint.
  • An old cd jewel case, piece of stiff cardboard or similar to mount the card on so it won’t be touched while we paint it.  It also gives us something makeshift to mix paint on like a palette.
  • A glass of water with a mark on it (to stop you drinking paint water rather than the mug of coffee beside it, We’ve all done it and it’s rank!).
  • A sharpie marker or other solvent based permanent marker (optional).
  • A soft pencil (for complete alternate art projects although we wont need it now).
  • A ruler, preferably metal to make sure edges of those text boxes stay straight.
  • A scalpel or sharp craft knife (safety first kids!).
  • Acetone to remove print from cards.  It can be found in some nail varnish removers or at good chemists behind the pharmacy counter in their flammable safe.
  • A covering for the table or tray that you’re working on to protect against spillages.
  • Somewhere with good lighting to work – desk lamps are your friend!

That’s probably all you’ll find around the place, and on top of this you will need paints and brushes. The paint will need to be water based acrylic, such as that made by Vallejo, Citadel, Cote D’Arms or Windsor and Newton, although alternatives exist.  For this project you’ll only need black, white, blue and red, although it wouldn’t hurt to invest in a yellow too, so that you can make basically any colour you want in the future.

As far as brushes are concerned, I’ll be painting this whole card with an old cheap synthetic brush that has seen better days, just to prove that it’s possible to get good results this way, however I should say that I ordinarily use some pretty high end brushes, which you can get from Rosemary & co., they’re a great company and its my pleasure to recommend them.

Thats all we need.  Well, almost I guess. I’m lucky enough to have a studio space, and this is outfitted with a bunch of upgrades. If you really want the Jace of the card altering world, then professional lighting, an airbrush and compressor, running water, much storage space and micro power tools are your friend. Also the cat litter tray. Well you don’t have to have that last one, but my wife believes that it reminds me to clear it out before I get to more frivilous matters and she’s probably right, go figure.  Like I say, you don’t need any of that although it will help, and I won’t be using any of it for this project, in fact I’ll be working off a tray on my lap in front of the TV with minimal extra stuff like anyone starting out.

Begin by mounting the card on the cd case. Four pieces of tape should form a surround for the card, and are just cut roughly. Then make a couple of loops with the masking tape (I’m using low-tac artist’s stencil tape, but it’s the same difference). Then attach the card using those loops so that it is close to the case, and you’re ready to go.

Let’s crack on with the alter. Colour everything in black that will be painted, using the ruler to get the edges of the text box straight.

If you hold this up to the light you’ll see a sheen from the solvent content in the markers, which we dont want. That said, now the paint will sit on better, and the black Borders won’t show through when the card is varnished.

We’re ready to move on here, but what if you were painting a light colour over the edges? Here you have a couple of options. First is to use a cloth with acetone on to take the print layer an leave it White. The second is to lay down a number of thin layers of white or light coloured paint. I’ll tackle the how to paint next.

You may have painted before at school, for fun or you may not but try to throw those preconceptions out the window and have a go at following these steps, I promise you will have better results with thin crisp smooth coverage. If you have problems with those things then you have probably not followed the procedure, be honest with yourself, go back over it and see what you can improve next time. Here’s what is important here – thin your paints, keep everything tidy, be confident, and thin your paints (that last one’s important).  Lets say I want to paint the borders of the O-Ring black. Begin by taking fresh paint, avoiding the bottom of the pot or the bad stuff in the lid onto the paint brush. This then gets wiped onto your mixing pallet/cd jewel case.

Some tips for doing this.  Keep the point of the brush at all times by rolling the brush tip over the pallette were you need to.  This will help it last longer. I normally use an old brush for this, but today I’m going to be using just the one for everything. Then, rinse the brush in your painting water, load it up with water, and mix that with the black paint 60:40. I never use thicker paint than this, and when I have, I immediately start producing the kind of thick lumpy finishes that characterise so many of the card alters on our favourite auction site.  Don’t do it! Anyway, now you have thinned paint, so wash your brush again and you’re ready to go. If the paint looks lumpy or inconsistent then ditch it and mix up another batch, it’s not worth ruining the card because you didn’t check. Using just the tip of the brush, well below the metal bit (the ferrule), paint in confident strokes. The paint won’t cover the detail underneath, it’ll need a few coats, but that is fine, it’s better than having a lumpy unplayable card. When it dries (5 mins or less to touch dry), if there are lots of brush strokes that you can feel if you rub your finger over it, then your paint was too thick. After a few coats you’ll be set, with nice black Borders. Hooray!

Right, on from that necessary but quite sizeable aside, lets get our o-ring sorted. I like to work on a bit of the card at a time, and around the guy’s feet is interesting. I begin By putting a layer of black with a little blue mixed in to match the ‘ambient colour’ that is the general sort of colour of the area, and as a guide for later extend out the halo along with the little white lines that act as a guide for the ‘halo’. Then, I mixed up a few shades of blue by adding more blue and white to my original mix.

As you begin you may like to do this in stages, maybe three, with lighter shades each time, however with practice, I’ve been able to mix my paint on a gradient, so that I’m drawing a lighter colour from the right than the left. This enables me to paint on (confident strokes remember), the lighter bits of the flagstones. I also go back over the shadows in the dark area at this point too to make sure there is a good clear difference.

As I’m doing this I’m letting my brush strokes extend onto the card picture surface, so that it is harder to see where the end of the printed art is. If I can’t see the break at all when I’m finished then I know I’ve done the job. My painting extends tight up the the guy’s leg, and even a little beyond it the other side. Be confident here, if you get paint on the guy you can remove it with a toothpick in about 5 mins when it has dried to the touch. Don’t put too much pressure on the card or you’d mark it with an indent, and don’t leave any stray paint without removing it for more than 12 hours, or it will cure and stain the print.

Now the side of the card looks extended, so let’s move forward. A lot of this process is cutting corners (if you want to be done in a reasonable amount of time), so around the bottom of the frame and the top right, I wash a thinned layer of black paint over the area.  This disguises the sheen of the pen ink, and smooths the rough transition between the lighted blue bit we’ve just been working on.  In order to make it blend well with the bluey bit, I use my finger to ‘feather’ the edge of the brush stroke – over the course of several thinned down layers of paint, it looks like a smooth transition from dark blue to black.

Let’s start on the halo – its the most fun bit after all (: looking closely at the card, I can see a background purple with a foreground blue-into-white halo.  ‘Reading’ the card by looking closely in a good light what colours of ink are printed on.  I keep my cards to paint and look at them, mentally planning what I’ll paint, in what order and what colours I’ll mix as I do it.  I do this several times a week so that when I come to actually paint the card, I already have a plan.  It saves a bunch of time (and cards) in the long run.  As such I wash a heavily thinned down purple (mix of red and blue) to begin to blend the border into the artwork. I also run this wash over the other side of the halo, wiping most of it off the card each time.  It builds up slowly over many layers and will sit on the card really thinly.

Next it’s time for the halo.  I wash purple around the halo to blend the border into the print.

Then I re-do the white of the halo where I ‘went over the line’, tidying up the extended bit.

This is all fine and dandy, but you cant really see the bit that goes over the title. So, I give it an outline in blue by painting a thinned down mid blue across it. I clean up the edges of the spikes with a cocktail stick and then go over the White again very carefully, leaving a wider blue outline on one side to act like a shadow and make it look more natural.

With that I’m done barring a little tidying up around the text box. See? You can alter too!

I don’t know how long that took you, but I did the whole thing (barring stopping for photographs) in 45 minutes, including the final tidying up while waiting for my wife so we can go to our new year party, so happy 2011! Altering shouldn’t be a race, and one speeds up when one is practiced. However, the time this hasn’t taken me is proof that these things can be done swiftly as well as effectively.

I hope you enjoyed this little walk through, next time I’ll look at what to do when it all goes wrong, like in the case of my poor unfortunate Garruk Wildspeaker!

Until then,

James Griffin

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