The first thing about MTG art is that it’s all subjective. That’s why we’ve outright stated that these are our favourites – they may not be yours, but we do hope you’ll agree with at least some of them. With over 20,000 different card art, it’s impossible to find a consensus.
So here’s how we picked our winners. First we tried to cut out any biases towards the game’s heroes and favourite Planes. That means no Chandra posing ominously with flames with one (or two) hands.
Secondly, we looked out for unusual perspectives and art that is more abstract. For example artwork with a wide perspective of a dinosaur trampling over some trees isn’t going to cut it. You’ll see in some examples in our list below.
We’ve also tried to avoid iconic cards in Magic: the Gathering and focused solely on the merits of the art. Black Lotus is the most famous MTG art, but in trying to be objective – it is simply an ordinary lotus painted black. Another iconic card – Force of Will – is loved by many and is also very powerful in the game, but is also not artist Terese Nielsen’s best work. Here’s a summary of our criteria:
No Biases — Ignore personal favourite cards, heroes, and artist unless the artwork itself deserves merit.
Perspective and Dynamism — A straight shot of a menacing monster or heroic character just standing there and doing nothing much isn’t good enough for this list.
Visual Concept — the use of colours, contrast to fit the card’s game text or to achieve a unique look.
“Cuombajj Witches” by Seb Mckinnon
It was hard deciding what should start the list, but we felt it should go to the hottest artist in MTG today – Seb McKinnon. He’s not one of the old guard, but part of the new generation. In recent years, he’s done so many jaw-dropping pieces of art for MTG that we decided to showcase his latest.
This reprinting of Cuombajj Witches from the Arabian Nights set over 20 years ago deserves some new art and McKinnon delights once again with nice symmetry and obvious contrast between black and white. Check out some of McKinnon’s other cards: Growth Spiral, Assassin’s Trophy, and Bedevil. For an in-depth retrospective and analysis into McKinnon’s MTG art style, check out this video:
“Thalia, Guardian of Thraben” by Steve Argyle
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben has been redrawn so many times, partly because it’s been reprinted recently in the Secret Lair drops. But the version that stands out to us the most is the promo version by Steve Argyle.
While some will loathe the CGI look of Thalia, this unusually-tight closeup of Thalia’s eyes and her sword’s hilt tells a lot about her character’s nobility and conviction. You could almost feel an unspoken voice reaching out for support (or perhaps to stay away if you’re the enemy). It’s a steely look, yet laced with a little worry about the battle to come.
“Bitterblossom” by Rebecca Guay
This is a recent rendition of a classic card, but Rebecca Guay has dozens of cards to her name, including Gaea’s Blessing and Dark Ritual[/c]. Her long brush strokes and watercolours are symbolic of her style, and while most of her other cards show static poses, Bitterblossom is different.
This Bitterblossom is dynamic and offers lots of depth, showing the fluttering nature of little faeries (that grow in number every turn), and is brilliantly enshrouded with wispy flora. Another great standout is the purple and green hues, showcasing a world deserving of its place in MTG.
“Phantom Warrior” by Anna Podedworna
This new artwork for an old, unused Common card makes the list because of the unusual perspective. The viewer is drawn right into the action because of the low, wide perspective, even if it’s just a warrior phasing through a wall.
There’s a good degree of dynamism in the warrior, with one hand lightly pressed on the wall for support and the other ready to strike. You feel so close to danger that you want to reach out to pull the guard away from certain death.
“Gift Of Orzhova” by Johannes Voss
Gift of Orzhova fits into the trope of standing there doing nothing, but the art is so much more than that. From the top perspective, we see she is about to take a step of the edge, and you wonder if you would fall or fly.
And look at those wings – glowing as though they were holy lights inside stained glass feathers. There’s a sense of hope, wonder, and worry about what will happen next. Anyone would take the plunge after admiring this piece of art.
“Path to Exile” by Todd Lockwood
Is this the most famous card we’ve featured so far on this list? Could be! Path to Exile is a very powerful card in the game, used in all formats it is legal in, and a mainstay in Commander decks. Like Thalia, there are many depictions, and our pick is the one by Todd Lockwood.
This version beautifully encapsulates what it’s like to be ‘exiled’ in the game – to disappear into nothingness, never to return. There isn’t any fancy magic bolt or blood-soaked sword, just a blinding light, and then silence. Absolutely serene.
“Song of Creation” by Noah Bradley
Although Noah Bradley is no longer drawing for Wizards of the Coast and his art will no longer be on future MTG cards, we promised that we would pick cards solely on the artwork’s merit. Bradley’s art has always been sweeping and grand, just see Anger the Gods and Cleansing Nova. It’s about feeling small in the grand scheme of things.
There’s just so much going on in this art that you don’t know to be awed or overwhelmed. In a way there’s a sense of peace, as the teal and orange tones are perfectly complementary, but the encroaching clouds and waves present some nature of danger or change. It’s art that you can stare into for a long, long time.
“Recurring Nightmare” by Jeff Laubenstein
You might categorise Recurring Nightmare as the good old days of MTG art, before digital illustrations and hyper-realistic artwork took over most of what is printed today.
The caricature style, mixed with bright colours often found in comics, is a refreshing and iconic look for MTG. Throw Recurring Nightmare or one of Jeff Laubenstein’s other cards – such as Show and Tell – among a bunch of modern cards and these will always stand out.
“Serra Angel” by Greg Staples
A retelling of an old classic, many will disagree and say that the original Serra Angel art is the best. But there are a few things that didn’t sit right. Our eyes are immediately drawn to her cleavage, and the tight perspective didn’t give any indication of her strength or warrior nature. This is a 4/4 Flying Angel with Vigilance!
The new MTG art by Greg Staples shows her clad in full battle armour, wings spread on full glory, and the iconic sword-into-the-sun stance. It’s a fuller and more majestic image of Serra Angel, and it keeps any viewer deeply captivated.
“Force of Will” by Scott M. Fischer
I hope people don’t misunderstand – we picked this version of Force of Will not because of Terese Nielsen (the original FOW artist) being on the outs with Wizards of the Coast. Ask anyone, and many will agree that the newest full-art card by Scott M. Fischer is beautifully painted.
Meticulously painted by hand, the art is dynamic and her counter spell looks so effortless, befitting the card. Fischer’s art has been seen in MTG since the late 90s, so producing stellar art is nothing out of the ordinary (see Imperious Perfect and Diabolic Servitude). Force of Will is just the latest and most recognisable by all players. Have a listen to Fischer to fully appreciate the paint work and understand the process behind this creation:
“Enter the Infinite” by Terese Nielsen
No doubt in any list featuring the best of MTG art, Terese Nielsen will always be there. She’s illustrated dozens of cards, including renown cards like Eternal Witness, Rhystic Study and of course Force of Will. But we wanted to highlight some of her more abstract work, including this one – Enter the Infinite.
This blend of digital aesthetics and classical comic art is almost psychedelic, and you rarely see such artwork on a MTG card. If there are any, you can be sure it is from Nielsen. It’s a pity that no new MTG art will feature her name, but we can easily look to the past and admire what she has done for the game.
End Step: Tell Us Your Favourite MTG Art
The glaring omission that everyone has on their minds – where are the Lands? While there are certainly indelible Land art in MTG’s history (see John Avon, Rob Alexander), we want to point out that there are also tons of new Basic Lands released every set, each beautiful in its own right. It would be unjust to say this Island is better than that Island – it’s simply a matter of personal taste.
If you’d like to see MTG art in its full glory, we highly recommend the Art of Magic the Gathering book series. They are beautifully bound hardcover books that showcase dozens of full-page spreads of art. Rather than see low-resolution images on the computer screen or be constrained to a physical card’s border, art books like these featuring War of the Spark, or Zendikar are good value for money.
Everyone’s got their favourites, and we hope you will share them with us by dropping a comment below. Tell everyone what makes your choice and why you love it. MTG art is just as influential as the gameplay, and we should never stop being grateful for it.
If you like similar “Best of” lists, do check out our top Common cards of all time!