?Since 1993, Magic: The Gathering’s been the little CCG that could, chugging along to forge a formidable worldwide fan base that takes to both comic shops and cyberspace to duke it out on a weekly basis. The game’s success is certainly rooted in its complexity (new expansion sets roll out every few months) and surprisingly addictive collectibility. One of the unsung heroes of Magic’s perseverance though, is certainly its artwork.
While today’s list is all about the illustrations on these magical pieces of cardboard, we’re eager to admit that we’re no scholars of the brush; that’s why we’ll be dissecting pieces in terms of what they do to enhance the cards they adorn, not on their individual artistic merit. Successful card art generally blends creativity with function, defining the card’s impact on play while still possessing attributes that catch the player’s eye. While we’re glad to report the state of Magic: The Gathering art to be alive and well, this list will be covering both the sweet and sour, because let’s face it — a fantasy game with almost 20 years of prominence and thousands of cards in circulation is bound to have some lovable head-scratchers in there somewhere. We’re also keeping our selections land-free, as the art on Magic’s chief mana providers really deserves its own list. Join us now as we count down our picks for 10 of the best and worst cases of art on Magic cards. Feel free to include your picks in the comments!
10) Cursed Scroll
?Life isn’t always fair to Magic cards; some are forgettable from top to bottom while others get it all: looks, power, and playing time. Not only was Cursed Scroll a total staple in its day, but the art also nailed its subject both logistically and creatively, depicting the card’s exploitable go-fish mechanic in a very cool way.
9) Fact or Fiction
?Creating work inclusive of MTG’s story elements can make things pretty tricky for the game’s artists. They’re already tasked with creating memorable images that tie in with the corresponding card’s attributes and Magic’s overarching themes, but making it click with a particular expansion’s storyline adds an additional challenge. When Terese Nielsen was tasked with including the Weatherlight’s crew in her illustration for Fact or Fiction though, she wasn’t deterred; By stylishly combining the card’s mechanics with blue’s themes and Squee’s illiteracy, the longtime Magic artist delivered in spades.
8) Jace, The Mindsculpter
?As any Magic player will tell you, it’s not often that a card so inescapably defines a format – and MTG players’ credit card statements – as one Jace, the Mindsculpter did after it debuted in the Worldwake expansion set. So, it’s only logical that the art on the card be equally iconic. Hey, if we have to be subjected to a mind sculpting, we’d at least want it to be by someone as cool looking as this guy.
?Flamebreak is adept at barbecuing creatures on the battlefield, and its art does a fantastic job of capturing the act in an epic way. We also can’t help but be reminded of James Cameron’s Terminator 2 here, which fills our little nerd hearts with cyborg-ian glee.
?Both very meta and very fitting, the unique, brain-twisting art on Unmake doesn’t leave much to dislike. Unless you’re the guy in the picture, anyway.
5) Hammer of Bogardan
?Ron Spencer’s been enchanting Magic with his unique stylings for years. Hammer of Bogardan is perhaps his best-known piece within the game, as the card’s seen plenty of play. Here, Spencer’s slick sketches do an excellent job of depicting the fire-born ethos of the Hammer, a powerful weapon that comes back to drub hapless opponents again and again.
?While it might not grab your attention with the razzle-dazzle of its contemporaries, it’s what Dandan’s illustration leaves to the imagination that sets it apart. By leaving the story for the player to sort out, it adds an aura of solemn mystique to what is otherwise a pretty bland card.
3) Predator Dragon
?Magic and dragons have a long history together, but Predator Dragon’s art is a special case. Unlike some other cards featuring the winged beasts, we get to see the dragon doing what it does best here, namely taking flight, breathing fire and terrorizing its victims. By kicking the angle askew, keeping the colors barren and forcing us to view the dragon almost abstractly as if through the heatwaves radiating from its flames, Raymond Swanland creates an image of memorable carnage.
2) Kazandu Blademaster
?Aside from acting as a perfect character model for a Square Enix RPG, Kazandu Blademaster’s art is hard to overlook, from the Blademaster himself to the sunlight creeping through the tree behind him that so nicely completes the image.
1) Juzam Djinn
?A creature that helped define Magic from the get-go, Juzam Djinn is renown for its striking efficiency and raw power. All of this is captured in the Djinn’s art, as its intimidating scale and menacing expression leaves defending players feeling an awful lot like the poor schmo in the picture: on the wrong end of an impending beat-down.
We saved the worst for last! They start on the next page.
10) Joven’s Ferrets
?Joven’s Ferrets already had a strike against it thanks to its ludicrous subject matter, but did the card’s art also have to make the ferrets look like lost kittens? If given the choice, we’d play this card in every deck because our opponents would be too preoccupied with their cuteness to worry about attacking or blocking.
?There’s just something off about the art on this card. We suppose it does fit well enough, there being caltrops in the illustration and all, but it still feels like a scene out of Home Alone rather than something based in a world of fantasy. There’s just no escaping the wrath of Kevin McCallister.
?Yup, that’s a tunnel alright. No doubt about it.
?We can appreciate the classics as much as the next nerd blog, but it’s this card’s blatant defiance of logic, even in the fantastical sense, that has baffled and enraged Magic players for years. You see, the nerd mind demands structured art on MTG cards, something that illustrates what the card does effectively while still being interesting – and clear – enough to hold one’s attention. Thus, this illustration, which appears to be of a mime analyzing a floating paint palette on a seesaw opposite a blindfolded deer-human hybrid pressing its nose against an orange ball while a giant amoeba looks on, simply won’t do. A card as important as Stasis deserves timeless art, but perhaps not this timeless.
6) Dream Chisel
?Whoa, oh, oh, sweet child o’ mine! Though its name doesn’t do it any favors either, the art on Dream Chisel calls to mind every ’80s metal band clich? we can think of. Unfortunately for D.C., the card game at hand is Magic: The Gathering, not Glam Rock: The Cocaining.
5) Prodigal Sorcerer
?Or, Gustav the Frenchman, on his way out the door to secure the morning’s fresh loaf of bread. Yes, “Tim” is a bit of a sacred cow in the MTG community, but why this portrait couldn’t at least show him doing something sorcerer-ish (or anything besides standing there) is beyond us. In its current state, we’re pretty sure the man pictured here is simply contemplating which pastry would go best with the jar of Nutella he’s holding just out of frame.
4) Life Matrix
?We suspect Life Matrix’s artist knew it would never see the light of day outside of the brief time it takes to flip a freshly opened card into the nearest trash receptacle. That’s why the illustration was generously drafted so the card could be recycled as a giveaway at Grateful Dead tribute concerts. How eco-friendly!
?Players casting Phelddagrif had to be at least a little embarrassed by its, ahem, whimsical art – unless of course they find the designs of one Lisa Frank to be particularly intimidating. The plus side: it’s probably redeemable as a coupon worth 25 cents off your kid sister’s back to school supplies.
2) Blue Mana Battery
?We’re not sure if the art on this card depicts a blue mana battery or a tight shot of Uncle Scrooge’s money halfway submerged in a body of water. The art is definitely of something, though, and that’s one aspect no one can ever take away from it.
1) Word of Command
?Unless the command was “draw whatever you want, the deadline’s tomorrow” we’re a bit lost at the inspiration behind Word of Command’s art. We assume there’ll never be a card called “Floating White Eyes in a Dark Room” because if so, did they ever shoot themselves in the foot with this one.