Magic’s art is one of its most wonderful features. Over the years, art styles have changed and evolved, and digital art has become more commonplace. Regardless, this hasn’t decreased my enjoyment – instead, I’ve learned to appreciate different styles and understand more about what I personally like and dislike.
Of course, as cards are reprinted, sometimes we get new pieces of art for old cards, and that brings up the age-old question: which version do I play? I love having these kinds of choices, and today, I’ll be celebrating that by building a deck featuring only cards where multiple different illustrations are available! Let’s get started by picking a commander. There are actually a lot of possible options, but for me, the choice is easy.
This is one of the new Judge Promos from this year, and it’s one I’m really excited about. The front side is cool, but I think the planeswalker side is really stunning. It captures the majesty of Nicol Bolas – and as we’ve learned from Trogdor, majesty is really important (Coach Z wouldn’t know majesty if it came up and bit him in the face.)
So how do we theme this deck? Grixis goodstuff? Well, that’s fun, sure, but I was hoping to give you something better connected to the art theme. What’s a great way to enjoy more pieces of art throughout a game? Why, stealing other players’ cards, of course! We’ll be focusing on control effects with a side of reanimation.
Once you’ve got one Bolas, why not add some more? I’ve got two that are great at taking what belongs to someone else and bringing it to the side of everyone’s favorite Dragon-God.
The God-Pharaoh has an alt-art San Diego Comic Con promo, but honestly, I like the original version. Meanwhile, the Archenemy: Nicol Bolas printing of the first planeswalker version has art that goes really well with the other two in terms of color palette. The newer of these two is probably the stronger, but since the older one swipes creatures so handily, it’s very much on theme.
Who else is going to be stealing some creatures for the team?
I went opposite directions on these. Keiga’s Iconic Masters printing is a really cool homage, but the Champions of Kamigawa version looks like a Final Fantasy IV boss, and I’m into that. Meanwhile, Sower of Temptation was featured in the Seb McKinnon Secret Lair, and like basically everyone else on the planet, I can’t get enough of Seb’s work. My choice also draws attention to the mechanical opposition here – Keiga takes something on death, while the Sower has to be alive to control something.
I also want to mention the Mind Control here in particular, as I love this stained glass style – it was nice to see that come back with planeswalkers more recently.
Finally, did you know Blatant Thievery had an alt-art version? I didn’t until I saw this great Explorers of Ixalan printing today – fantastic work (as always!) from Victor Adame Minguez. I suppose these choices also give away how much I appreciate the old card frames – the colors of the art feel so much richer to me in them. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the new frames are much more readable and accessible, and I agree with the change, but a little nostalgia is nice here and there.
There’s also a few temporary control effects in the mix. Again, my weakness for old frame cards shows itself, especially in that old Reins of Power.
Roil Elemental’s Secret Lair form doesn’t do it for me – I think I understand where the Elemental is, but between my eyes not understanding it and my general lack of love for the Zendikar Rising showcase frame, I’m out on that one. Plus, look at that Dragon in the original just getting pulled in!
I also want to note the Hijack art, as I have a weakness for Angrath. Finally, let’s talk about Mass Mutiny, which was another discovery for me in the Explorers of Ixalan catalog today. This card needed pirate theming, and now here it is.
From a strategic standpoint, these cards are obviously less potent than the permanent versions, and you might be wondering why I’ve given them such prominence. Well, I like to use these effects in combination with sacrifice outlets – that way, they’re removal that works on indestructible or regenerating targets. Plus, you get to attack with whatever you take, and we all know that some of the best Commander creatures have attack triggers.
Moving on, let’s talk about some of the sac outlets!
Here I am, reversing course – I love these two Ultimate Masters cards! The Phyrexian Altar has that glistening, sterile aura of fear that pervaded much of the art in Scars of Mirrodin block, while the Phyrexian Tower is more clearly defined and looks like a stitched-together construct jutting out into the turbulent sky.
Oh, and before I forget, here’s something else that goes really well with temporary control effects…
Since Threatens expire during cleanup, Thassa’s end step trigger can blink a creature before you have to give it back, returning it to the battlefield under your control permanently! You may not have Conjurer’s Closet for extra redundancy, but Thassa’s harder to deal with anyway. Even taking something with Control Magic and blinking it to benefit from an ETB effect to just dodge future Disenchants can be a solid plan.
Remember that side of reanimation effects I mentioned before? Time to show those off.
The more natural-looking Mimic Vat art here with the vague clone figure rippling in the center really does it for me, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s one of my favorite cards overall. I love grabbing a solid ETB creature or attacker and holding it in the Vat for as long as possible, and I’m happy to use countermagic to defend that Vat for as long as I can.
The rest are pretty ordinary, though I’m sure some will be surprised by my choices of Reanimate and Beacon of Unrest. I’m not sure where the Beacon is in this art, but I like that snowy motif, and the Reanimate art here really shows off the epic nature of bringing back something titanic for just one mana.
Now that we’ve taken care of the on-theme items, let’s move to some utility cards.
With such a variety of effects and synergies, some card draw is necessary to smooth things out. Whether that comes in the form of a cantrip like Baleful Strix (and yes, of course I’m all about the Bird Secret Lair version), a repeatable card draw source like Keranos (no Secret Lair version for me on this one, though) or a lump sum settlement like Concentrate (the original), it’s all important for this deck’s engine to keep on ticking over. Oh, and that lovely Solemn Simulacrum in the old frame also happens to ramp us.
Even with the deck’s steal and sacrifice synergies, some point removal is necessary. I love the Murderous Rider showcase, so that was where I started, but the old-school Terminate with the volcano and the storyline flavor text really gets me.
Reality Shift may not feed your reanimation spells, but it’s nice to have an exile effect kicking around, and the Ugin’s Fate art is just amazing. Abrade, aka Shatter with upside, ends up hitting more utility creatures than you’d think over time.
Wrath effects do a good job of filling graveyards for your reanimation spells while keeping the board clear for your low creature count deck.
I’m in love with the Seb McKinnon Damnation here – it’s just amazing. Decree of Pain is a card draw superstar, while In Garruk’s Wake’s asymmetry is game-breaking, as it should be for nine mana. Finally, Black Sun’s Zenith uses counters to clear away indestructible and regenerating threats for good – and I love that full art Game Day promo.
The Tempest Counterspell with Ertai flavor text is one of my favorite cards ever, and whenever I play Counterspell, I do my best to play that one.
The rarely-seen Duel Decks Countersquall is really sweet, and I actually need to pick some of those up for myself. The full-art Negate is a bit more divisive – I’ve heard a lot of people say they don’t like Jace and his magic umbrella here, but I love full-art cards. Countersquall gets a lot of play despite just being harder-to-cast Negate with mild upside, and as such I don’t usually cast it, but I’m interested to see how often I end up being unable to use it.
As usual, I stay mostly with two-cost rocks here, but I’m making an exception for Coalition Relic so I can showcase the newer art. Jason Felix’s art is my absolute favorite – the lighting, chain and Relic itself look beautiful in this reimagining.
I think I put in the Box of Rocks Arcane Signet just because it’s nice not to have the same Arcane Signet as everyone else at the table – mine’s still sealed, so I haven’t really had a chance to look at it in person.
I made an oddball choice with Rakdos Signet, but I’m honestly not enough of a fan of its old art, even in the old frame.
Of all the versions of these iconic boots, this is easily my favorite. Sure, I’m not putting it in all my decks because money is real, but I love seeing them “on display” in this art.
I’ve never gotten a game loss for forgetting to de-sideboard this version of Tormod’s Crypt at Friday Night Magic 14 years ago, so in it goes.
Let’s move on to the land – less of a throwaway section than it often is!
I’m not big on the Expedition Steam Vents, but the other two absolutely blow me away. I love the Izzet symbol in the back and the cool pipes in the Return to Ravnica version of Steam Vents, so that’s my pick here.
Even though we did a bad job of opening any fetchlands in our high school Magic club, I still appreciate the old versions the most. That said, the colors on the Secret Lair: Ultimate Edition version of Scalding Tarn – especially the juxtaposition of the jagged rocks and the lava – are really impressive to me, so I’ll crack mine out of the display for this one.
While I don’t like the expansion symbols much on either of these, I love the art. Command Tower is at its best when it’s standing alone in the wilderness looking like a Shandalar dungeon, and this eerie, misty, Crumbling Necropolis for undead pirates resembles a Dark Souls level – and when I’m comparing art to video games I love, you know I’m bought in.
I don’t know where something that looks like this Sulfur Falls art exists in real life, but once it’s safe to travel, I’m getting on a plane and going there to hike. The original Dragonskull Summit art, spewing fire into the air, is my first pick of all available art for that card by far. You’ve probably already figured out I enjoy the pirate art, so my love of the Ixalan Drowned Catacomb should come as no surprise.
The Expedition frame looks great on geometrically-focused pieces like Morphic Pool. The Luxury Suite here, while it looks a little austere for my tastes, really does look like a place where Nicol Bolas would watch a coliseum match.
While this may not have been used exactly as the “Bring a Friend” moniker would indicate (it was a bonus for making any purchase or event entry via the “Love Your Local Game Store” promotion instead), the art looks incredible. It’s not the same as the Reliquary Towers you’ll see in everyone else’s decks, which is nice.
I love the way the Strip Mine art here flows down into the sinkhole. As for the Wasteland, I’m not going to pretend to understand what’s going on, but it looks like it could be an ad for the new Dune movie, and that’s an aesthetic I can get behind.
The wall-to-wall art on the Unsanctioned lands just can’t be beat for me. The Island is still my phone wallpaper, and it makes me feel like I’m out at sea viewing something through the mists. The Mountain and Swamp are sweet too, but the Island is my easy favorite.
I hope this has inspired you to think about the art available to you and the visuals you choose to employ as you build your Commander decks. Here’s my full decklist for this one – see you next time!
Alt-Art Nicol Bolas Commander by Eric Levine