As the release of Double Masters nears one attribute of the set that has impressed me so far is the fantastic artwork. I’ve been so inspired by what I’ve seen that I decided to recount and pay homage to my eight favorite MTG artists of all time in today’s article.
What would MTG have been without the lush, creative imagery that enhances our experience and play with favorite cards? It’s hard to imagine! The role of art, fluff, and flavor is fundamentally important to the gaming experience. Metagames come and go, but art that delights and captures our imaginations is timeless.
With that said, it’s important to note enjoying art is subjective and personal experience. You and I likely have different tastes when it comes to what we find most pleasing in the art box which is part of what makes talking about the art so interesting. If I were to poll a room of Magic fans: Who are your favorite artists? I know we’d get an eclectic range or answers and rationale.
Keep in mind favorite and objectively best are different discussions. Today’s article will pay tribute to my favorite MTG artists and share some of my observations and experiences that have led me to enjoy their work so much. Bear in mind, it was no easy endeavor! MTG has featured art by over 400 unique contributing artists over the years and each brings a fresh set of eyes and brushes to their vision and rendering of the multiverse.
I have tremendous respect and appreciation for anyone who can create an amazing image and not being on the list isn’t intended as a disrespect, rather I’d like to think of my list as highlighting the artists who have most dramatically enhanced my personal appreciation of the visual flavor of the game.
I’d also like to encourage the readers to share their favorites (especially those that I wasn’t able to include) to show them some love. As you’re reading about my favorite artists, I hope it gets you thinking about the various artists who best capture your imagination as well.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: THE LANDSCAPE MASTERS: ROB ALEXANDER AND JOHN AVON.
Lands are a fundamental aspect of the flavor of MTG. An amazing setting can enhance a story as much as characters or plot, and this is especially true in a genre like fantasy. The landscape of the multiverse is the setting where Magic happens.
Today’s Honorable Mention is unique because it isn’t the typical runner-up prize, but rather an important side-conversation about how these artists occupy a unique and unprecedented space that informs my enjoyment of Magic’s flavor as the premier architects who have world-built the geography of the multiverse. Today’s Honorable Mention means as much and possibly most, than making my Top 8 and I chose to go this route because I specifically wanted to discuss these two artists in proximity to one another in the article.
In terms of artists who have profoundly shaped the planes over the years, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to frame a thought exercise as follows:
Is the impact of Avon and Alexander’s combined landscape art greater, equal to, or less than that of all the other 400+ MTG artists combined?
You need not answer straight away, but keep it in mind as you read through the section. The fact that the question likely wasn’t a snap yes or no is a testament to the absurd prowess of these two masterful world shapers.
I’ll start by saying I’m a huge fan of both artists’ work. I’m not on Team Avon or Team Alexander, and truth be told, we as fans are lucky to have two such prodigious talents to visually chronicle the planes. As a personal testament to my fandom: I submit that the personal set of Basic Lands that I’ve consecutively played in my Battle Box for over a decade are a mixed set of Alexander and Avon foils from 7th Edition:
With Double Masters hailed as an all-time aesthetically beautiful set, I’d also like to throw 7th Ed. into the ring as a particularly gorgeous set, as it has a unique combination of wonderful original artwork and extremely high quality foiling of the old card face. Gavin Verhey and The Professor recently exchanged Tweets about the logistics of potentially seeing the old card face return on new cards at some point and in terms of things I’d be most excited to see in MTG that would be an easy #1 for me.
I digress. The point is, given the option to pick Basics based on pure looks alone, I go with a mixed Avon / Alexander set from 7th.
Rob Alexander has had a hand in shaping the geography of the multiverse ever since the very first set, Alpha. In fact, he provided artwork for four of the original Dual Lands:
Alpha has outstanding Basic and Nonbasic Land artwork, but Underground Sea stands out as a cut above the rest. The card is impossible to mistake even at a distance as a result of the eerie, yet vibrant, saturation of pink tones. It also doesn’t disappoint when examined closely in detail. It’s a truly incredible painting.
As if accounting for nearly half of the original Dual Lands wasn’t enough, Alexander also created the artwork for all 10 of the original Ravnica block Shock Lands:
As well as ⅘ of the Onslaught Fetch Land cycle:
Alexander’s Shocks and Fetches are the only ones I’ve ever played in my Constructed decks and are easily my favorite versions.
We can also thank Rob for my other iconic locations, including: Ancient Amphitheater, Ancient Den, Arena, Deserted Temple, Elephant Graveyard, Flagstones of Trokair, Graven Cairns, Great Furnace, Irrigation Ditch, Llanowar Wastes, Miren the Moaning Well, Nantuko Monastery, Remote Farm, Sheltered Valley, Shivan Reef, Skycloud Expanse, Smoldering Spires, Snow-Covered Swamp, Spawning Pool, Sulfurous Springs, Tainted Wood, Tendo-Ice Bridge, Tinder Farm, Treetop Village, Turntimber Grove, Twilight Mire, Vault of Whispers, as well as many Basics over the years.
I appreciate how Tendo’s artwork perfectly balances the raw power, but also fragility, of the cards’ game play. I’m always a huge fan of cards that look how they feel to play. Great MTG artists have a real knack for capturing those gamer feelings.
John Avon, I tend to associate with full-art Basic Lands, which are popular with nearly all players ranging from casual to pro. In fact, Avon’s full frames make a return (with a slightly different frame) in Double Masters:
Avon’s landscapes are so lush with details that it makes him the perfect candidate for large frame cards. The larger the image becomes, the more we can see, and the more there is to appreciate.
Avon is also the architect behind the Ravnica 1 bounce-land cycle artwork. I tend to think of Ravnica as one of, if not, the best setting in Magic and that observation makes a ton of sense when we consider both nonbasic land cycles are attributed to Alexander and Avon.
There are plenty more examples of excellent and iconic locations painted by John Avon across history.
There’s clearly a lot to love here, but my all time favorite Avon:
The plane of Mirrodin has featured a ton of iconic and stunning flavor over the years, but when I abstractly imagine it the first thing that always comes to mind is: Seat of Synod. For me, it stands as the emblem of that plane because it is so distinctly, authentically Mirrodin.
#8. MATT CAVOTTA
One takeaway I learned from working on my “Greatest Flavor Texts of All Time series” is how important the Goblin tribe is to the flavor of the game. In a sense, Goblins provide necessary comic relief in a game that often takes itself seriously.
When it comes to Goblins there is no artist I enjoy more than Matt Cavotta. He’s the Goblin King of MTG artists. Cavotta’s Goblins are a unique blend of familiar and novel and always show me something I’ve never seen before.
When I imagine the archetypical MTG Goblin the first one that comes to mind is the original Goblin Piledriver artwork. It perfectly represents everything I’ve come to know and love about Goblins: relentlessness, brutishness, and outside the box humorous tenacity. Cavatta always finds terrific balance between these innate goblin attributes.
That special Goblin quality is always in the details: The panic on the paladin’s face, the skunk hat, or the ridiculous set of double glasses and beer-dispensing hat filled with serum to imply the blueness of Flectomancer.
While I tend to most closely associate Cavotta with Goblins (one of the ugliest and most savage tribes in the game), it’s interesting the second thing that comes to mind from Cavotta reflects regality and elegance:
The Etched Creatures of Mirrodin are some of my favorite creature designs of all time. Their unique, distinct shape and color is the perfect blend of steampunk and fantasy I associate with Mirrodin. It’s a wonderful hybridization of knightly elegance and alien strangeness.
The thing that stands out with Cavotta’s work to me, is how he is able to render traditional elements in a completely innovative way. I would describe my experience of viewing his artwork as seeing something familiar and completely new at once. The iconic creatures he creates feel like they’ve always been an innate part of the MTG universe all along.
Despite Kami not being a particularly powerful card, it’s artwork is an image I tend to associate with the world of Kamigawa. It feels authentically Kamigawian, but actually it’s a card doing a lot of work to establish the mood and feel of the plane.
It’s also worth noting that Cavotta served as Senior Creative Director for MTG and did a fantastic job bringing amazing flavor to the sets he oversaw. He’s an artist with a knack for understanding the larger framework of Magic convention, utilizing it, and expanding upon it in such a way that feels like his innovations were always there just waiting to be uncovered.
#7. AMY WEBER
Amy Weber was one of the original 25 artists who contributed artwork to Magic’s first set, Alpha. She tends to be polarizing in terms of fan appreciation because her work is extremely distinct and stylized. I’ve often heard it described as “cute steampunk.”
Personally, I adore her artistic style. I’d describe it as vibrant, geometric, symbolic and often featuring recurring themes of skeletons, astrology, and clockwork. Time Walk, a highly iconic MTG Power 9 image, is the perfect synergy of all the things I love most about Amy’s art working together at the same time.
When I first got into Magic as a kid, I used to love thinking about how the various characters and environments related to one another. There wasn’t a tightly woven plotline delineated by a series of novels, rather fans had to fill in the blanks for themselves.
I wanted so badly to know who these clock-faced skeleton creatures were and what their purpose was. As children, my friends and I speculated perhaps they were Urza and Mishra! We also thought perhaps they were somehow related to Time Elemental (for obvious reasons!):
In hindsight, I appreciate how attributes of the game text, such as a physically fragile body with uncanny power to fight temporally, is so delicately represented. As I’m waxing poetic about the olden times, I also enjoyed having so many great artists with identifiable styles, such as Weber, Tucker, Hoover, and the Foglios and how their distinct techniques made just a single plane feel so huge and eclectic.
One reason I chose to single Weber’s artwork out as a favorite is that her cards always look so fun to play with.
I’m all for hulking beasts, nasty monsters, and nightmarish ghouls but I find Weber’s whimsical and playful treatment of creatures and objects creates a fantastic point of contrast.
Easily one of my favorite Dragons of all time because of how it subverts expectation. It’s adorable. I took a drawing class as a kid where students were encouraged to bring in images they wanted to learn how to draw. Obviously, the first thing I did was sift through my small Magic collection and Dragon Whelp was the first piece of art I brought in.
Lastly, I’d also like to point out how well I think Weber’s art translates to the small frame of a Magic card. Bright colors, hard lines, and distinct geometric shapes and patterns tend to pop even on a tiny scale. In the Modern era, I see a lot of new cards that look amazing on a full size canvas but often look like indistinguishable blobs in the packs.It’s also a shame Amy’s tenure as a MTG artist ended during Alliances and well before Foils because I think her geometric style would have looked amazing in foil. Time-Shifted Dragon Whelp is a testament to that!
#6: Carl Critchlow
Often, the most exciting pieces of art from a new set are depictions of the incredible and gigantic monsters that threaten the very existence of an entire world, creatures that could best be defined as Kaiju.
When I think about specific artwork that best captures these MTG kaiju the world of Carl Critchlow immediately comes to mind. There’s a part of me that wonders if he’s responsible for creature power-creep, because I’m hard pressed to say anything he paints could realistically have power or toughness less than five.
“Let’s put one of those beefy arms on him for good measure…”
Rith is such a perfect embodiment of the mass and brute strength of a Naya Dragonlord. It’s massive, jacked, and looks like it could punch the daylights out of anything it encounters. I swift and innovative departure from the lean, sleak dragons we typically see in fantasy.
In terms of traditional epic dragons, Critchlow has that covered as well:
While outdated in terms of being a useful playing card, Crimson Hellkite is one of the best renderings of a classic Dragon in MTG. Critchlow has a style that bleeds into the overall feel and flavor of the game. His rats, gnarly black ghouls, and especially hulking beasts have a distinct feel that has often been imitated as a mainstay of the multiverse but rarely duplicated in execution.
I never understood why Ravager was a Creature Type – Beast. I wonder if it’s an homage to the artist, Critchlow, who is known for his excellent beasts. Food for thought.
Critchlow is also the brush behind the iconic “Donny.”
Critchlow is one of the most prolific MTG artists of all time with well over 200 contributions, highlights also including: Big Game Hunter, Bog Raiders, Call of the Herd, Decree of Pain, Exhume, Infernal Kirin, Innocent Blood, Magnivore, Qumulux, Ravenous Rats, Ronom Unicorn, Smother, and Squirrel Mob.
I saved my two favorite ‘Critchlow Kaiju,’ for last:
Silvos is my pick for favorite green giant. In the signature style of Critchlow, it looks massive, powerful and perfectly captures the sylvan spirit and energy of giant green-ness.
The OG mega-Tinkerbot. DSC embodies a hugeness of scale, power, and physicality I don’t recall seeing before or since. It looks like an 11/11 Trampler with Indestructible and is one of the few creatures I believe from looking at the picture that Rith or Silvos couldn’t punch-out!
Artwork is a signature part of the MTG experience and I’ve enjoyed revisiting the first half of my favorite artists. Stay tuned for Part #2 where I’ll round out my top picks.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I’d love to hear about the artists that capture your imagination through their work, so feel free to share in the comments or drop me a line on Twitter if you like (@briandemars) if you want to reminisce about MTG art. It’s not my intent that we should all agree on the same list of favorites, rather it’s my hope that in reading today’s article the reader has a new appreciation for some of the artists and art that is near and dear to my heart. I certainly look forward to reading the replies and gaining a new appreciation of your favorites as well.