Nov 27, 2017

The most beautiful Magic: the Gathering cards

Now that I've returned to Magic, I want to take a moment to talk about the cards. Especially in an era of digital entertainment, part of the appeal of any card game is having the actual physical cards to handle, shuffle and look at. With Magic, this is what my high school history teacher would have called a double-barreled sword. On the one hand, I have to be honest: in terms of overall looks and design, getting back to Magic has strongly reminded me of how well-designed the cards of the Lord of the Rings living card game are. They are just lovely in a way that I think Magic cards have never been. But what Magic has going for it is sheer scale. With over 15 000 different cards, several with multiple versions, there's a huge library of cards to discover and rediscover, and whole boatloads of art. Some of it is, frankly, incredibly good.

To start with, here are some of our favorite contemporary(ish) Magic cards. We're great fans of Magali Villeneuve from her work on the Lord of the Rings card game; Arwen and Éowyn are staples of our decks and simply gorgeous cards. She's been doing more work for Magic lately, like the spectacular Wildfire Eternal for Hour of Devastation:

Her women are on another level altogether, though; Dulcet Sirens and Scrapper Champion are particular favorites of mine, but the best of the lot is surely Titania, Protector of Argoth.

Another fantastic current artist is Cynthia Sheppard, whose Shadow Alley Denizen is simply beautiful.

Dark Salvation is also a favorite of mine.

Mike Lim aka Daarken is another prominent exponent of these darker themes, with lovely cards like Shipwreck Singer and Bloodhusk Ritualist:

Looking at these images, it might not be entirely unfair to guess that he's a bit of a Luis Royo fan. That's okay, though, so are we. Here's a Barony Vampire:

For whatever reason, vampires seem to get some of the best art, but so do their opposite numbers, so to speak; as a theologian I'd be remiss if I didn't post at least one angel, so here's Avacyn, the Purifier by James Ryman.


The above, I think, are fair examples of some of the best of the current line of Magic cards: almost hyperrealistic contemporary fantasy art of fairly uniform quality. Of course, this wasn't always the case. In older Magic sets, the quality and nature of the art varied wildly. You could get comic book art or an impressionist painting; it might be brilliant, and it might be awful. This is where you find the ugliest cards, but in my opinion, also the most beautiful. Rather than giving you a practically photorealistic depiction of what the card was supposed to represent, the older art often left you with a lot more room for imagination.

I talked about my enduring love for lands in my last post on Magic, and I think this is why I'm so fond of them. There are lots of great examples, but one that particularly stuck with me was Academy Ruins by Zoltan Boros and Gabor Szikszai.

There are lots of other lands I could mention, like Brian Snoddy's take on Urza's Power Plant, John Avon's Lantern-lit Graveyard and Submerged Boneyard by Chris Childs, and many others. Of the two-color lands that are a prominent feature of Magic Duels, I think my favorite is Highland Lake, by Florian de Gesincourt.

While I think these lands are very beautiful, none of them really stop me in my tracks. For that, we have to go back all the way to Urza's Saga, which came out in the fall of 1998, when I was starting high school. It included what I genuinely think is one of the most beautiful and evocative cards of all time, Lingering Mirage by Jerry Tiritilli.

This card has everything for me: the boat, the dramatic swell of the ocean and the wonderful range of blues in the water, from the greenish water in the distance to the dramatic dark blue in the foreground. The massively exaggerated curve of the horizon gives the picture an air of unreality, reminding you that this isn't just a painting of a boat, but a Magic card. And it really is a painting printed onto a collectible card.

Of course, this isn't a feature restricted to older cards: one of the most beautiful Magic cards ever, Seek the Wilds by Anna Steinbauer, is from the Battle for Zendikar block.

This is where my bias in favor of the older cards really shows up, though. I think Seek the Wilds is a fantastic card with wonderful art. But compared to some of the older art like Lingering Mirage, Seek the Wilds leaves less room for the imagination. It feels, perhaps paradoxically, like a more direct representation of its subject than the older, more organic images. Lingering Mirage invites me to stop and look at it closely and think about it. Seek the Wilds is just a really cool picture.

While we're on the subject of old cards, by the way, I do have to mention a card that may not be the most beautiful piece of art you'll ever see, but is by far the most kickass depiction of a badger ever: Rysorian Badger by Heather Hudson.

That is literally a badger playing a drum solo on someone's skull with their bones. You just don't get art that awesome any more. Heather Hudson also did the art for Lonely Sandbar, an amazingly beautiful card which returns us to our nautical theme.

I make no apologies for featuring ships and the sea so prominently here; having grown up by the seaside, I love them, but I also genuinely feel that for whatever reason, disproportionately many of the most beautiful Magic cards I've ever seen have featured both. A case in point is what I'd nominate as the second-most beautiful card in all of Magic: Exploration, by Brian Snoddy.

One of the particular charms of Magic has always been that it isn't tied to a particular setting. Not only does this mean that designers have a very free hand in inventing new settings and themes, but also that cards don't necessarily have to be in any way tied to any of them. They can even represent completely abstract concepts, like Exploration does. Here the combination of the title and image, but also just the image alone, suggest a story, but they leave it to your imagination. In my opinion, that's what makes truly great card art.

Finally, it's time for what I believe is the most beautiful card ever created for Magic: the Gathering. All the way from Fifth Edition, it's Reef Pirates by Tom Wänerstrand.

Everything I said about Exploration is true here, and then some. The flavor text is also pretty good, and works with the image and title to give you the idea that this is a snapshot from a much bigger story that you're free to fill in on your own. But the art itself is simply wonderful. The sky is simply amazing, and a perfect contrast with the brilliant emerald water. And the sails! Look at the sails! For me, this card has everything, from story to craftsmanship.

So yeah, I still feel that the Lord of the Rings living card game has better quality cards in general. But when it comes to individual cards that make you stop and think and feel, you'll find them in Magic.

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