Is the art of Magic The Gathering stagnating?

Art is one of the most enduring and popular elements of Magic the Gathering. Each card has lovingly created artwork, effortlessly expressing its world and story, with some becoming so popular that original copies of the magical art can sell for tens of thousands at auction. Many of Magic’s best-known names are its artists, like Seb McKinnon, Kev Walker, and Rebecca Guay.

One of Magic’s most significant art overhauls in recent years was the introduction of “Booster Fun” in 2019. Starting with Throne of Eldraine, more boosters would have some sort of alternate art treatment, such as a Showcase frame or an extended art that crawls. in the border. It’s proven popular ever since, with the Showcase style becoming a major selling point of every new set. But at the same time, it shows a stark contrast between how Magic handled its art early in the game and how it does now. Why does everything weird and different seem like a selling point these days?


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For 10 to 15 years, Magic has seen its artistic direction become more and more precise. Since circa 2010 New Phyrexia, Magic’s style has evolved from a very diverse range of fantasy-inspired pieces to high-resolution, highly-rendered digital art (or digital appearance).

Terror by Ron Spencer
Terror by Ron Spencer

Don’t get me wrong, the artists’ work on these sets is amazing, often brimming with character, color, and storytelling in a way that very few other games can achieve. But if you take a recent set like Innistrad: Crimson Vow and compare it to an older set like Alpha, Homelands, or Mercadian Masques, there’s a definite solidification of an aesthetic that feels almost restrictive.

Older Magic was ready to lean more heavily on its fantasy influences. Just by looking at the first set, Alpha, you had artwork that could fit into today’s sets, like Bog Wraith, Will-O-The-Wisp, or Tranquility. You’d also see more comic or comic book-inspired art, like Demonic Attorney, Counterspell, Ancestral Recall, Northern Paladin, and Howl From Beyond. Then you would get the really weird art that went on to be some of the most iconic in gaming, like Pestilence, Terror, Chaos Orb, and Stasis.


Then watch Crimson Vow, one of the most artistically diverse ensembles in recent years. All of his art is amazing, but he leans towards that detailed, highly rendered style that has dominated the past few years. There was some experimentation through artists like Dominik Mayer (Curse of Hospitality, Abrade, Nature’s Embrace, Thirst for Discovery) and Sam Guay (Demonic Bargain, Change of Fortune), but their cards were notable breaks from the norm.

The sad thing is that it’s not that Magic doesn’t do varied and experimental art on its cards, it’s just that it doesn’t put those cards front and center. Going back to Dominik Mayer, his earliest contributions to Magic were in the Zendikar Rising Showcase setting and its associated Secret Lair. He then worked on Strixhaven’s Mystical Archive (the set replacement for Showcase frameworks) and his Secret lair. It contributed some of the best art in 2021, but it didn’t take a regular spot on a main set until the year’s final release, Crimson Vow.

Also in the Mystic Records, Carly Mazur’s Faithless Looting has caused a lot of unnecessary controversy. With its flat colors combined with a heavily shaded photorealistic figure, it was one of the boldest and most radical art releases for Magic in a decade. But its different appearance led to a lot of vitriol and people saying it “didn’t look like a Magic card”. The fact that it’s even an argument in the first place shows that Magic needs to diversify its aesthetic, and unloading new, bold, and thought-provoking art like this to boost fun alternate art treatments doesn’t help.

Looting Without Faith by Carly Mazur
Looting Without Faith by Carly Mazur

We could sit down and list loads of artists who are doing great work for the game right now – but the artists themselves aren’t the problem. You can take any piece of magic art and it would be beautiful. While they have the difficult task of delivering hundreds of artwork several times a year, I think the responsibility ultimately stops with Magic’s art direction team.

The problem could be in one of two places. The first could lie in the instructions he gives to the artists he commissions. This seems unlikely, as artists have posted the exact briefing they were given on Twitter and they tend to be more about the subject and the environment than the overall aesthetic.

On the other hand, it could be which artists Wizards order with. Wizards likes this style, so it commissions more artists who do this style. Even aspiring Magic artists seem to have figured this out, with many on sites like ArtStation trying to emulate the highly rendered style in hopes of being “seen”.

Thirst for discovery by Dominik Mayer
Thirst for discovery by Dominik Mayer

The solution to the latter is obvious: find a more varied group of artists and let them work outside of your marketing products like Booster Fun and Secret Lair. Take the risk of less experienced artists or those working in mediums not usually associated with magic – remember when Kaldheim had sagas that were photographs of woodcarvings?. Give artists from outside of Europe and North America more chances to bring their art to main sets, instead of making them outlets for Collector Boosters and Secret Lairs.

Some of Magic’s best artists are known because they bend to the style of the house: the impressionistic British illustrations of Seb McKinnon, the softer ones of Jesper Ejsing, slightly more cartoony style, the bold line work and flat colors of Sam Guay, the high contrast and geometric shapes of Dominik Mayer, or the darker, whimsical style of Nils Hamm. I would much rather have a set that has a few hiccups but tries to do something new with its art than one where all the amazing contributors coalesce into one solidified block of capital-F fantasy art.

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About the Author

Christopher S. Washington