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Lee McKenzie – EMPIRE Playing Cards – Built to Conquer

Lee, thank you for your time and wishing you the best with your project! (Project link at end of interview)

Here are the 10:

1. What got you interested in designing a deck of playing cards?
Since being around 10 yrs old, I’ve loved magic. It’s been a huge part of my life. I’ve always been creative too, before I even knew what being creative meant. I drew things, made things and so naturally it become something I pursued more in school and ended up studying graphic design at college and looking to make a life from doing what I enjoyed. The time came when I saw Ellusionist bring out the black tigers, ghosts and vintage 1800′s. I was working as a DVD designer at a production house in Manchester, UK. When I looked at these cards, something stirred inside me. A green light went off and I knew I could do something awesome of my very own!

To know that I could combine both of my passions into one project just blew me away. During an inspiring trip to Rome, I quickly began working on my very first deck, one which I later, nervously sent to Brad at Ellusionist with crossed fingers. He loved it and I soon began working as Ellusionists playing card designer creating some of their most popular decks to date including Arcane, Artifice, Infinity and Fathom.

2. What was your inspiration for this deck?
My inspiration for this deck comes from the epic stone carvings and beautiful engravings that adorned the monolithic buildings of ancient rome at the time of the Empire. Such endless detail and powerful imagery were used to communicate authority, trust and hope to the people of Rome and I thought it would be incredible idea for a deck. Although recently there’s been an influx of similar takes on this theme, before I created Empire I had very seldom seem anything like the organic beauty from these epic times captured on the back of a playing card, especially at the level of detail they deserved.

When I decided to create Empire, I was at a cross roads. I didn’t want to continue working for Ellusionist knowing that I was working on my own thing at the side. It didn’t feel right. Instead of being a gun for hire, I wanted to share more in the decks themselves and have my very own out there instead of putting everything I had into them and giving them to someone else. I loved working for E but I decided to cease, stop doing freelance of any nature and focus on creating my own line of playing cards, beginning with Empire. It was and still is a very risk step for me. Cutting off my income made things tough but with support from friends and family I had enough to try and create the life I always wanted sharing my art with the world and hopefully one day making a living in return by doing just that. I can’t believe the success of Empire on Kickstarter and I’m so thankful to everyone for their support in my dream.

3. Why Kickstarter?
I had no money. In fact, one week before the Kickstarter ended, all we had was around 300 pounds (500 US approx) between us. If I had the money to pay for such an expensive production, I would have done it a long time ago before the custom card scene got as crazy as it is today. With my travelling and freelancing background, no bank would loan me money. Kickstarter was a true blessing because not only has it helped me spread the word to thousands of people who backed me, it has helped me connect with people who may further support me with my next decks. Although the process can be slow, it’s such a life and dream saver. One that I’m forever thankful for.

4. Do you have any other interesting hobbies or maybe a fun story about an experience involving your deck?
I have a ton of hobbies, but most of which have took a side step because I’ve been busting my ass with Kings & Crooks getting some new decks ready to launch. Hobbies like magic, martial arts, movies, filmmaking, reading, mixing/scratching, dancing, photography, personal development and psychology. I won’t get too specific but thats a good chunk of my interests.

In fact, when I was making the trailer for Empire, I didn’t even have a deck to use so I printed out some of the artwork at a local Staples and used them. This meant I couldn’t do fans, spread or shuffle them, so the trailer had to revolve around this constraint. But limitations give rise to creativity and I ‘m really happy how the trailer worked out. We actually shot the final poker showdown scene in Chetham School of Musics Library in Manchester, one of the oldest libraries in Europe. It was incredible, but we only had a couple of hours and tourists were constantly coming in to take pictures and look at this particular room so we could only shoot in between those moments when it was empty. It was hard, patient work, but I think the end results looks pretty cool. I’d change it all now haha, but thats what always happens with me, I have new ideas and the old ones instantly become weaker in my head.

5. What is one thing you wouldn’t do without?
The one thing I wouldn’t do without is my mind. Conscious and unconscious, it’s the idea machine that provides me with so much excitement (and torment at times too). It’s a very useful tool, but I just wish I was better at being able to shut it off when it’s not needed, otherwise it leads to serious over thinking and gives rise to other negative emotions that wouldn’t have a place if I could just switch the thing off haha.

6. What’s the best tidbit of advice you’ve ever been given?
I’ve read so many incredible books by many different and wise people, it’s almost impossible to nail down one piece of advice. Depending on my state of mind, one piece of advice would be better than other. However, if I had to nail it down to one tidbit that I was actually given, from another person, I’d say it was a lesson I learned from my best friends uncle, who I didn’t really know that well. We we’re around 13 yrs old, outside my friends house. His uncle sat in his cool car at the curb side, just about to drive off. He some some last words to my friend and then reached into his pocket and grabbed a couple of pound coins. He said, “there you go, get something from the shop” and give my friend and I a pound each in our outstretched palms. What a treat, free money, how kind :)

Me, being the quietly confident, but super well mannered boy I am responded to this act of kindness with and smile on my face and the words, “Are you sure it’s ok?”. I do that, when someone shows kindness toward me, I want to check that it’s really ok with them, and that they shouldn’t feel as though they have to. As soon as I said those words “Are you sure?” with a smile on my face and my palm outstretched, my friends uncle reached back out, grabbed the pound coin off me and said, “Ok then don’t have it”.

Whether you think that was a mean thing to do to a little kid or not, it was a valuable lesson and one that has stayed with me ever since. If someone offers to do something nice for you, or give you something nice, something that you’d like, don’t ever stop and question it. Take it, show your thanks and don’t disrespect them by questioning their kindness. If you don’t want it, you can always give it back or to someone else later who may benefit from it more than yourself. If you take it, at least you have the option. It extends into life itself and opportunities that you discover or that present themselves. Take them, own them, and use them to do something that benefits you or those you care for. Otherwise they may be take away from you just as quick and you’ll be left there with your hand outstretched and just the vague feeling of once holding something valuable that was there just a second ago. Regret. If I’d only just taken it and shut my mouth, my day would have been amazing and I wouldn’t have felt so embarrassed by questioning my friends uncles kindness.

After pumping up his stereo, lighting up his cigarette and revving his engine, he looked over at me and flicked the pound coin to me. I caught it, he smiled and went on his way.

Lesson learned.

7. What advice would you give to other aspiring deck creators/artists?
The advice I’d give to other aspiring deck creators is go for it. Have fun making something awesome. Express yourself. However, if you’re looking to make a living from doing it, the best advice I can give is this: Make sure you execute your concept, or find someone to execute your concept to the highest level possible. Don’t half-ass it because you don’t have all of the skills. Find someone who does have the skills to do your idea justice and see about getting them to help you make your idea a reality. If you try to pull it off yourself without the vision or skills to take it there, it may come off a lot weaker than you had wanted and may end up adding to the noise instead of standing out above it and getting noticed. That way, all of your hard work will hopefully be rewarded and you’ll be giving people something very unique that they’ll be proud to call their own. Win win.

If you want to do it yourself, that’s awesome, but put in the time and devotion to the art and technique to really pull of your idea the way you want. It will be so much more worth it at the end, but may take a lot more time to get there. I know there’s thousands of artists more skillful than I am, different than I am I have no illusions about that. I will definitely be seeking their help when it comes to an idea that I don’t think I could do justice to. You could do the same.

8. Do you have an online presence where we can view your work?
You can find some my freelance work at:



But my newly formed playing card company, Kings & Crooks can be found at http://www.KingsandCrooks.com It’s still being developed but is open to sign ups to get notified of any new decks I bring out.

9. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I’d like to say thank you to you James for allowing me to share some pieces of me with you and your readers!

10. And finally, I would like to give you this opportunity to share three to five images and tell us a little about each.
This was a logo for a t-shirt company I started in 2004. It’s long since gone, but I’ve always had the urge to share my art with people in anyway I can. Needless to say I can’t wait to do more t-shirts more playing card focused for Kings & Crooks.


This was one of the first ever concepts I did for Ellusionist, just before beginning work on what came to be the Arcane deck. “Too much cabbage” was the feedback. I agree, but not bad for a first shot.


This was my daily sunset swim in the pool outside our villa Koh Lanta, a small island in the south of Thailand. I lived in Thailand for 6 months and it was one of the most significant times in my life for many reasons. My girlfriend Megan and I lived in a luxury beach front villa for just 3 dollars a day, on a diet of 1 bowl of noodles a day to save money (even in a place as cheap as thailand). Money, if spent, was better spent of experiences to enrich us rather than ‘things’. I learned a lot here from the people and the place, and continue to learn a lot with every new place we travel to. Travel is a great teacher and inspires me no end. It’s one of the greatest things a creative mind should experience. Not a 2 week vacation or tourist trail, but to live and experience another culture for an extended period of time. To live it an learn to see things from another perspective. Just thought I’d share this with you.

Project Video / Link:

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