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The Best Magic Artists



Graeme takes a moment to reflect on the art of Magic the Gathering cards and highlight some of Magic’s best artists 

6 Minutes to Read

Mindlessly plowing my way through the YouTube algorithm on a Sunday afternoon, I came across something that would redefine the way that I see Magic the Gathering cards forever.  The video essay was titled “The Magic Art of Seb McKinnon” and it caught my attention. Up until this point, I viewed Magic cards as cardboard rectangles filled with rules and text. These 63 x 88 mm cards were simply game pieces that I used to control the board to win games.

If you are anything like me, you are initially pulled into a hobby for a singular reason. It could be a compelling storyline, amazing miniatures to paint or an unparalleled gaming experience that scratches that strategy itch.  Sometimes, it can take years to appreciate all the layers in depth and design that hobbies hold. For me, this was the art of Magic the Gathering.

When things are well designed, we often don’t take note of them.  If you think about it, if the card name fits the art and the product is well designed we aren’t left with follow up questions. This is where everything begins to fade seamlessly into the background and it can leave much unappreciated.  I think this can happen quite easily with the art in Magic the Gathering.  It has to take something truly striking and different for the MTG community at large to notice them *ahem* Faithless Looting *ahem*

While many players might collect different promos or alternative art cards to “Bling” out their deck, this is often a quest for rare and exclusive cards instead of one in appreciation of art.  The reality is that most Commander players are unlikely to see the vast majority of art in any set. Considering that most Common and Uncommon cards don’t see much or any constructed play, we may miss 67% of art in any given set.

So that fateful YouTube video that I watched served as a wake up call for me. If you haven’t watched one of Sam’s videos from Rhystic Studies I’d highly recommend it.  Sam provides a detailed analysis of a variety of topics but his critical evaluation of MTG artist’s portfolios are some of my favorites.  Without a background in fine arts it can be hard to say why we like and don’t like a piece of art.  Sam guides his viewers to consider color, texture and composition to better explore art. Other critical questions you might ask yourself is “How does this make you feel?” and “Where are my eyes drawn to?”.  With some practice you can begin to understand the styles of your favorite Magic artists and artists as a whole.

So today, I want to take the opportunity to go over the best artists throughout Magic the Gathering. Before we start our evaluation, I think it is important to understand what criteria we’ll be judging the art on.

  1. Iconic: There are certain images in Magic that will always remain iconic.  These can be pillars of formats or unparalleled and power cards.
  2. Immersion: I’d argue that the goal of fantasy art after all is to bring the viewer into the world. Here we will be looking to see if the artist can immerse you into many of Magic’s planes.
  3. Innovative: Here we want to identify unique qualities and stand out.  The greatest sin of modern media as they say is to be boring.
  4. Evocative: Here we want to see if the piece of art speaks to you and how it makes you feel. What is often left unsaid ends up being the most profound in this criteria.

Iconic: Christopher Rush

Favorite Pieces: Black Lotus, Lightning Bolt and Tomod’s Crypt

It is hard to argue that the art for the Alpha Black Lotus isn’t some of Magic’s most iconic. Besides being the most expensive and coveted of the Power Nine, Black Lotus’ art is firmly rooted in the hearts of most Magic players and easily recognizable. While not overly complex or surreal in approach Christopher Rush’s work provides us with the forever classic style prevalent in early Magic sets that I love more and more the older I get. Much of the art of this period is defined with a unique, almost vintage style and feel from the dust-jackets of early high-fantasy novels.  For these reasons I think that Christopher Rush is one of Magic’s best artists.

Fantasy and Immersion: Tie with Di Terlizzi and Rebecca Guay

Favorite Pieces: Crop Rotation & Bitterblossom

After the art from the classic original few sets, we find a definable second generation of Magic art and direction – Fantasy and Immersion.  It could simply be the number of elf and goblin cards we find here and/or the unique color palette, but the art of Di Terlizzi and Rebecca Guay are quintessential of this second generation of art.  There is a lot more detail found in these cards but also some abstract and surreal art that I am quite fond of.  With much of the art from this generation I feel like my DND character is ready for my “There and Back again” story.   

Innovative: Terese Nielsen

Favorite Pieces: The Guru Land Cycle

While Terese Nielsen is no longer a commissioned artist for Wizards of the Coast, it is hard to argue that she isn’t one of the most innovative artists for the game. She’s the famed artist of cards like Force of Will, Fact or Fiction, Birds of Paradise and Eternal Witness to name a few. Many of her cards feel like a mix of backgrounds from Marvel’s Dr. Strange and figures from Conan the Barbarian.  She is without a doubt one of the best artists from Magic the Gathering.

Evocative: Seb Mc Kinnon 

Favorite Pieces: Cuombajj Witches, Chalice of the Void and Entomb

With a game as old as Magic the Gathering it can sometimes be hard to break the mold that comes with the color pie.  While I have always loved black cards in Magic they follow the traditional trope of angry demons, death and destruction.  The color palette of black tends to be more demure and muted. Enter Seb Mc Kinnon, Magic’s biggest up and coming artist. When Seb gets assigned a black card the viewer is shown a depth and aesthetic rarely seen in black.  Just look at Entomb and Immortal Servitude below.  They are full of color and depth and emotion.  I may be a bit biassed as Seb’s works now adorn multiple walls of my home but I think he is one of Magic’s best artists. 

Being consumers and players of Magic the Gathering it can be quite easy to criticize every misstep the company makes.  Trust me, the past few years have felt like a never ending spoiler season of sets and secret lairs.  While I may not agree with how they are monetizing their game, I can say that I am grateful for their existence.  Over the past 27 years they have employed over 568 artists to create the art for their game. In no small part, they are one of the biggest employer’s of fantasy artists around the world.  They have created a wildly successful trading card game but also given us the players immersive story and art to enjoy it with.  While I may not enjoy all of the art produced for this game I am glad that they are still taking risks and pushing boundaries. Many people dislike or even hate Carly Mazur’s rendition of Faithless Looting but I think it is good for the game.  Along with Secret Lairs, it has shown Wizards of the Coast will continue to innovate, push boundaries, explore new styles, and even get their players to notice their art a bit more.

Graeme is a Canada based Commander fanatic, and can these days be found jamming some MTG Arena, playing Sea of Thieves with friends or supporting his local game store.

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