Welcome back to the second part of my tribute to my Top 8 favorite MTG artists. Last time I covered Honorable Mentions (Avon and Alexander – the MTG “Landscape Masters.”), as well as Matt Cavotta, Amy Weber, and Carl Critchlow. In case you missed it and want to check it out, that article can be found here.
I want to again stress this series is a tribute to honor the artists whose work has enhanced my personal enjoyment of MTG flavor the most, rather than a definitive list of “objectively best artists.” I’ll be sharing some of my experiences and insights, and open up the comments to the readers to do the same.
#5. CHRISTOPHER RUSH
Christopher Rush was one of the original 25 MTG artists who worked on Alpha and his art is as iconic as it is beautiful. In fact, Rush’s brush has immortalized many of the most recognizable and beloved images in the history of the game.
Black Lotus is probably the most iconic Magic image. It represents the gold standard of excellence in terms of gameplay power, collectibility, and aesthetic beauty. All of these qualities are important when we think of MTG as a collectible card game (CCG).
The above image is from my personal collection. A custom playmat featuring a drawing of Black Lotus done by Rush himself. As is the case concerning anything related to Rush, it’s stunning.
If one were to look for a card that could potential rival Lotus in terms of iconic MTG images, we need look no further than another Rush:
Who hasn’t cast a Rush Lightning Bolt at some point? Lightning Bolt is as fundamentally basic to Magic as Island, Swamp, or Forest (and probably more so than Plains!). In stark contrast to providing the artwork for one of the most ubiquitously played cards ever printed, Rush is also featured on some of the rarest cards ever made:
It’s clear when MTG wanted a signature piece of art for special occasions they went to Rush!
When I play constructed I typically use Christopher Rush Forests from Beta. All of the original basics stand up to the test of time and look awesome, but Rush’s Forests particularly so.
Rush’s Forests are the blueprint to which I compare and judge all other Forests that have come since.
Rush’s style has been described as having a comic feel with strong lines, bright colors, and bold backgrounds which translates incredibly well to the small frame of a playing card.
Nether Shadow is one of the first singles I bought and my reason for purchase was that I thought it looked sweet and wanted one for my collection. He had a way of making the tiny art box feel huge, which is funny because he’s actually the one who first suggested doing full art Basic Lands!
Another thing to appreciate about Rush’s art is his fantastic use of vivid colors and contrast. Obviously, Nether Shadow is a fantastic example of these qualities, but my favorite is The Wretched:
The saturation of neon lime green on this image is mesmerizing. It’s simultaneously vibrant, striking, eerie, and gloomy. The card oozes black mana while being incredibly bright in composition. He had an amazing eye for color.
“This art is too good for this game text.”
Another thing to appreciate about Rush’s work is how well he can set a complex mood with a single, and often simple, image. Blood of the Martyr is a stunning example: it’s a piece of art that demands mental and emotional interaction from the viewer. One of my few complaints about The Dark as a set is that this artwork didn’t find its way onto a more playable or useful card.
Rush’s style may be described as straightforward but his talent and vision transcends the tiny box on a playing card. His art grabs our attention and captures our imaginations. He makes a small picture feel epic and exciting.
Christopher Rush passed away in 2016 but his legacy of beautiful, captivating images will live on in the hearts of fans forever.
#4. KEVIN “KEV” WALKER
If Kev Walker were a musical act, his greatest hits album would be a ten disc set. If you pull out your deck box right now, chances are there is a Kev Walker card sleeved up in there. In fact, he’s provided art to more than 400 different cards.
I intended to make a list of ‘notable pieces’ by Walker but instead just took a photo of my article notes, because typing them all out would actively screw with the word count of the article.
Walker is a true virtuoso. In fact, I’d go so far to say he’s an artist whose work has heavily influenced what modern MTG art looks like. In particular, he’s art always tends to incorporate an urgent sense of action and motion.
I have a lot of “favorite” Kev Walker pieces, but I’ll lead with his Ying and Yang rendering of Damnation and Wrath of God. As much as I prefer to use older cards, I use a 7th Ed. foil Wrath of God in my Battle Box. I mentioned earlier in the series that 7th Ed is one of the most aesthetically pleasing sets of all time and the first printing of Kev’s Wrath is yet another great example of 7th’s awesomeness. I’m of the opinion that 7th Ed. Wrath is the most beautiful foil card ever made.
Do you like creepy creatures summoned with black mana?
Kev can do that better than just about anyone.
Do you enjoy a hilarious Goblin?
Kev’s got you covered.
How do you feel about amazing art on signature Blue Mage staples?
Kevin Walker does that too.
Do you play Green in Pauper?
Kev Walker drew your deck.
Walker has such a massive quantity of terrific art that I can’t even scratch the surface to unpack it all. I feel like “Tim” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail fumbling to describe the power of the Killer Rabbit: “Just look at the bones!” But instead, it’s: “Just look at the art!”
Roar of the Wurm is my all time favorite Kev Walker artwork.
I distinctly remember cracking one from a pack of Odyssey, being blown away, and thinking it was one of the most incredible images I had ever seen on a Magic card in my life. It sets a tone. I love the citadel, with its tiny glowing windows, to highlight the scale of the massive physicality of the Wurm. The image is full of incredible details that combine to form an uncanny and uncomfortable ambiance.
#3. MARK POOLE
Mark Poole’s art is indistinguishably linked to playing with many of my all time favorite cards over the years. His artwork stands as the symbol for many of the most powerful cards in a Blue Mages’ spellbook.
I also have a neat real life experience that involves Mark Poole. I used to work for, and be sponsored by, another online store that had professional ties to Poole at the time. The company flew me out to Grand Prix Seattle 2015 and when I arrived the head of the company told me he messed up and didn’t book enough rooms and unfortunately I’d have to share a room for the weekend with Mark.
It was one of those life moment’s where outwardly I was trying to subtly suggest disappointment at not getting my own room, but was inwardly ranking how high on the list this bizarre turn of events was likely to rank among the all time coolest MTG things that had ever happened to me!
There are plenty of moments in life where I’ve met people whose work I enjoy and been disappointed actually interacting with them – this was not the case with Poole! I know the artists take questions about Magic from fans all convention long, and I certainly didn’t want to pile off the clock, so I did my best not to geek out like a fanboy. It’s kind of funny that we chatted a lot about casual Warhammer of all things! Imagine sharing a room with MTG royalty and talking about a casual side game.
I’ll also say I’m convinced that Poole’s greatness, that seems to translate from his art into extremely powerful cards in the game, might be a real thing where proximity to Poole = greatness because I actually finished 3rd at that Grand Prix out of almost 2000 Legacy players!
It clearly extends to quality of Basic Lands:
Islands > Not Islands.
My favorite thing about Poole’s Islands are how distinctly different they look. I have a set of each that I use depending upon if I’m in an orange, pink, or blue mood.
“Ancestral Recall” is a pretty dopey concept for one of the most absurdly powerful cards of all time. Why exactly does remembering one’s ancestors equate to drawing three for a single blue at instant speed? I dropped a call from my dad yesterday and called him back and certainly didn’t get three cards worth of value.
In regards to artwork, I love the distinct Tropical iconography Poole brought to the original Alpha sets.
The story goes that the original artwork for Birds of Paradise was intended to be an alternate Basic Island (seriously, how sweet would that basic Island have been!) but Garfield liked it so much he created the Birds of Paradise card to utilize it.
Poole is also the original Counterspell artist:
I’d also suggest that Poole tends to be a hugely underrated landscape artist. Obviously, he gets street credit for famous designs such as Island, Tropical Island, and Library of Alexandria but he contributed some fantastic designs to many lands that didn’t make a constructed splash as well. For instance, he did a wonderful land cycle for Fallen Empires and take a look at these:
I think these unplayables have wonderful art, but are like “Blood of the Martyr” relegated to the island of misfit toys because their game text is so ridiculously, hilariously bad. I actually use both of these cards as lands in my Mental Magic Stack since it was the only relevant way I could think of to play with them.
I’ll wrap up with one of my all time favorite cards and art.
The Library of Alexandria is single-handedly responsible for me playing Magic today. Back in high school I sold my entire collection to buy an American Standard Fender Telecaster guitar and didn’t play for a couple of years. When I went to college one of the first classes I took was world history and the professor lectured about the historical Library of Alexandria. I found myself daydreaming for the rest of the class about tapping this wonderful card to draw.
I decided that I’d like to pick up a copy of Library to use as an expensive bookmark (they were like $50 at the time) and I ended up also buying a couple of starter decks to goof around with.
I’ll also note the only playmat I have ever bought was Poole’s Library of Alexandria mat. I have hundreds of mats I’ve accumulated from years of events when it was customary to receive a mat with entry, so I needed to buy an extra mat like a Boros deck needs sideboard cards for Stompy! Yet, totally worth it! When I’m not using my RIW mat, LoA is my go-to favorite.
#2. PHIL AND KAJA FOGLIO
The husband and wife team of Phil and Kaja Foglio earns the #2 spot on my list and I’m a huge fan of the individual and collaborative artwork of both artists.
In my opinion, Phil Foglio is the most hilarious MTG artist of all time and by such a wide margin that I can’t even think of who would be my distant #2. His art is easily recognizable due to his signature cartoony style, use of bright color, and humorous subject matter.
My favorite part about Phil’s MTG art is how it always plays with the context of card name and game text to create some sort of a visual meta gag. Recycle earns my checkmark for funniest art of all time. Or, perhaps the hilarious absurdity of Master Decoy:
Are you distracted yet?
I also find his outlandishly silly orcs and goblins to be a fundamentally significant moment in MTG flavor history:
The Orcs and Goblins we now know and love are highly derivative of Phil’s early renderings. Orcs and Goblins have come in many shapes, sizes, and styles throughout MTG’s history as various artists have put their particular flourishes into play, but it was Foglio’s brush that shaded them as the hilarious dim-wits we know and love. If you look at other depictions of goblins from early sets they certainly lack the humor and whimsy we have come to know, love, and expect.
Killer Bees are another of my all time favorite Magic cards primarily for the art. The color! The baby blue sky and wispy white clouds; the lovely fuzzy yellow of the bees themselves; and all against that Green Legends frame. These insects practically buzz out of the art box.
Killer Bees were the first expensive Magic card I ever bought. The irony being, they were more expensive back in 1996 than they are today. I passed up on a Mox Emerald for my Green deck because I absolutely had to have them Beez. The absurdity doesn’t end there… When I was a youngster, my family took me on a trip to Virginia Beach. My mom gave me twenty buck and said I could use it to buy whatever souvenir I wanted. I ended up with a custom-made, airbrush, Killer Bees t-shirt that served as my little kid at a tournament formal dress attire. I told that story to my wife a while back and she actually had another custom Killer Bees shirt made for, so when paper Magic returns, I know what I’ll be wearing.
Kaja Foglio’s art is equally part distinct and amazing. As I’ve been researching and writing this series, I’ve spent a lot of time looking through various artists portfolios to get a better sense of the entirety of each artist’s contributions to Magic. Over the past few months, the MTG community has engaged in a lot of dialogue about representation of race and gender in artwork. We’ve even seen a handful of old cards banned for art or flavor reasons, as well as a few artists dismissed for behavioral or ideological reasons. I don’t want to focus on negatives, other than to say it’s a moment when a lot of fans would like to see themselves better represented in the flavor and fluff of the multiverse.
One thing that struck me hard, especially at this unique moment in time, as I was looking at Kaja’s work is how diverse her subjects are especially with regard to depictions of non-objectified women and people of color in the MTG universe.
It was so striking that I actually counted: of Kaja’s 62 pieces of MTG art forty two featured women, the majority of which do not have white skin, but rather feature a variety of ethnicities. It’s interesting that something many fans are asking for in the present was actually done by somebody in a bold way long, long ago.
Pyroblast and Hydroblast are signature pieces from Kaja. I love how the two combine to form a larger picture (an homage to Hoover’s Red and Blue Elemental Blast) and portray women as legitimate spellcasters. I would love to see the two characters depicted on Pyroblast and Hydroblast as modern day Planeswalkers because they look like extremely cool and interesting characters.
I adore Kaja’s vision of the Magic Multiverse as a space that is open and inclusive of everyone. Also, Kaja originally envisioned Teferi as a black woman:
As if being one of the most inclusive MTG artists of all time wasn’t enough, her brush also immortalizes some of the all time iconic cards:
Mishra’s Workshop is an early conception and depiction of a location on the plane of Phyrexia from the Antiquities expansion, the first set in which it is mentioned.
I’ll wrap up my tribute to the Foglios with what may ultimately be my #1 favorite pieces of Magic artwork:
The seldom seen, but oft celebrated, 4-for-1!
Mishra’s Factory is a perfect way to bookend a discussion of the Foglios because it’s a combined effort attributed to both, and if you look carefully you can see elements of both artist’s signature styles in play. I love how they delineated the multi-art cycle around a central theme of the seasons. Unlike other early cards that featured multiple unique pieces artwork (Strip Mine, Urza’s Tower, Hymn to Tourach, etc) the Foglio’s create a sense of unity in the cycle by showing the same factory across a seasonal year.
#1. MARK TEDIN
In Part 1 I mentioned the fantastic art from Double Masters is what inspired me to write the series as an homage to my favorite artists.
Specifically, it was these four cards, with their nifty new frames, that blew me away:
Gorgeous. Then I learned all of these images combine to form one mosaic painting:
I guess I may potentially be buying a second playmat if it’s available!
My mind was actually blown. Incredible. I love the homage to Antiquities with Strip Mine’s iconic wavy horizon lines planted firmly between the Mine and Power Plant and even the leyline running across Karn’s path.
In ten years time, if you ask me what I remember most about Double Masters, I’ll likely say the same thing I’m about to say right now:
“Double Masters is the set when Tedin flexed.”
The thing I value most about Tedin’s painting is how distinctly and fundamentally “Magic” it is. Even if we skip past the fact that assembled Tron casts Karn on turn 3 (something every Magic player knows) the style itself incorporates elements from all across Magic’s history. In fact, this image would have felt right at home in any era of Magic flavor, which is only fitting because Tedin has been creating iconic artwork since day 1. I see this piece of art as being about Magic, and not just a picture of some Tron lands.
Tedin’s greatness speaks for itself. I don’t need to tell you why it’s good. It’s obvious why its great:
When I had my airbrushed Killer Bees shirt made, it was a tough choice between Bees or Orb.
An all time classic.
He’s on Power 9 (or, post Time Vault errata Power 10)
My first brush with the thrill of tournament success was when my friend Mark Biller won Vintage Championship #2 with Control Slaver and won this amazing alternate art Timetwister by Mark Tedin:
So, I’ve actually celebrated at a bar with an original piece of Mark Tedin artwork. Normally, taking a piece of original Magic art to a bar or club would get some confused looks, but keep in mind it was GenCon in Indianapolis and so we were pretty much the coolest kids in the room that night.
There’s an entire era of constructed, “Necro Summer” named after this one:
He decorates the best version of the best card in every player’s Commander deck:
And while we’re at it, the second and third best:
Tedin put the “juice” in Juzam.
And it was from Tedin’s imagination that the most powerful and deadly creature in the multiverse was sprung:
In my book, Tedin is the MTG art GoaT. The End.
In the introduction I posed the question: “What would Magic be without the art?” And, after writing the articles and revisiting many fond memories and experiences relating to MTG art, the best answer I can give is: it wouldn’t be Magic at all.
There’s a lot of different reasons to appreciate different artists or pieces of Magic artwork, and for the most part, any reason to enjoy these vibrant and intriguing images is a good one. One specific thing I noticed, as I was writing the article is that I place a lot of emphasis on how the art works on the playing card to tie the collectible, flavor, and play experience together. I tend to prefer artwork that specifically looks great on a card, much more so than how it looks on the canvas which makes sense since I don’t get a lot of opportunity to look at the original paintings as much as I play with my cards. Or, I tend to enjoy art that neatly captures the game play of a card in a visual format. It’s something that hadn’t really occurred to me before, but is interesting in a conversation about MTG art specifically.
My hope is that in reading these articles the reader has a new (or, rekindled) appreciation for some of these truly outstanding MTG artists. There are so many, many more who are worthy of being on any list, but I went with the ones who have been most influential on my personal experience with MTG. You’ll note, that discussing each of these artists brings out recollections of personal experiences that span my entire life – and that’s something truly incredible about the power of art.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about favorite MTG artists or artwork in the comments below, or you can Tweet me: @briandemars (I’m not actually famous – I’ll totally reply). With that said, which artist do you think absolute needs a shout out for their awesome contributions to the MTG multiverse?