When Magic Art Imitates Life

What about Magic: The Gathering has allowed it to have a long and storied success, which now roars into its 25th year? Some would say it’s the gameplay—a wonderful mix of strategy and luck. Others would say that it is the fantasy escapism, which relies on the allure of common fantasy elements such as Elves, Goblins, and Wizards casting powerful spells. Only a few might say that it’s the engrossing art, but through the years, this underappreciated aspect of the game has made Wizards of the Coast a dream destination for fantasy artists and fans alike.

As a self-described Spike, I haven’t always taken the time to appreciate the art on the cards that make it into my deck or that I slide to my neighbor during a Draft. But undoubtedly, Magic has existed for 25 years as an escape from the real world—an opportunity to leave your real-world strife behind and travel to a distant plane to command creatures and spells—and the art has created that immersion since the game’s inception. But this window into another multiverse is actually sometimes more of a mirror, with subjects frequently inspired by art or landscapes from our world—creating a fun-house reflection effect of the environment around us in which we can feel both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

References to Our World

When the game was still in its infancy, the flavor text overtly referenced real-world literature such as Shakespeare, Twain, and Emily Dickinson.

In addition to its literary flavor text in Legends in 1994, Karakas was the first example I could find where Magic art imitated life, when Nicola Leonard immortalized the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar into the fantasy realm of Dominaria. The clear and striking connection to the real location gives magnitude to the art by Leonard and is a relic of a time when Wizards of the Coast made cards to go with the art rather than commissioning art that followed the cards.

This Karakas continued in the tradition of these real-world references, this time to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. The incredible landmarks associated with Karakas help us viewers gain a sense of what sort of place it might be on Dominaria.

In Tempest block in 1997, Wizards of the Coast was poised to fully capitalize on the power of connecting the art featured in cards to the real-world, giving players a sense of familiarity with the game and also providing collectors uniquely rare items to gather.

The early and obvious example of Magic art connecting to our world is in the APAC and Euro lands. The APAC lands were alternate art basic lands available only in the Asia-Pacific region to those that purchased Tempest booster boxes. While these might at first glance appear to be generic art set in a fantasy realm, they are actually based on real landmarks such as Mount Fuji in Japan and the Great Wall of China. The APAC lands were so popular that in 1999 the European boxes of Nemesis, Prophecy, and Invasion would grant basics with art featuring the Pyrenees in Spain, the Lowlands of The Netherlands, and Venice, Italy among others. These basic lands still command a premium price on the collector’s market and are some of the most sought after sets of basics in the game for their uniqueness and scarcity.

Beyond the Lands

Although it is easy to understand why artists would utilize real-world landmarks and landscapes for their inspiration of lands, the influence of our world creeps into other card types as well. For Mercadian Masques in 1999, Terese Nielsen looked toward Sidney Harold Meteyard’s I Am Half Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott but decided to add a Merfolk twist, which led to Saprazzan Heir.

When I spoke with her in preparation for this article, Nielsen indicated that she also drew from real-life art references in two of her later pieces. Nature’s Lore, which again featured a race-shifted mirror of Hill Top by Maxfield Frederick Parrish from 1926 and Mother of Runes, whose dress calls to the style of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, and whose “essence” was inspired by Frederic Leighton’s Pavonia from 1859.

If you are interested in more details in the process from these inspirations that ended in Mother of Runes then I encourage you to check out Terese Nielsen’s write-up and sketches on her website.

Nielsen was not the only artist to confirm their real-world influences. David Palumbo mentioned that his Lost in the Mist from Innistrad was a reference to Ophelia by John Everett Millais.

When I asked if the art direction called for this reference to Ophelia or if he had brushed up on art history enough to recall the painting on his own, he told me that Ophelia was what instantly came to mind after reading the description where the art direction referenced the vibe and detail from Millais’s work. He also said, “when you’re asked to paint a dreamlike scene of a woman drowned in a lake, that’s the point of reference for sure.” Volkan Baga said that he does not draw from specific paintings but he informed me that he regularly is inspired by perusing the Old Masters, and his Elspeth, Knight-Errant is inspired by William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s atmosphere, colors, and floating fabric.

I think these themes are best illustrated, respectively, by Bouguereau’s Jeune Bergere, La Cruche Cassée, and Le Raavissement de Psyche.

Wizards’ Change in Philosophy

Through the years, Wizards of the Coast eventually decided to discontinue literature references in flavor text, but that did not sever the connection to the real-world that has continued all the way to recent sets such as Unstable and even the current block of Ixalan. Although I was not able to get in touch with him, no discussion of Magic art is complete without Noah Bradley. He admitted on Reddit that his Highland Lake in Rivals of Ixalan was inspired by Oil Study of Cotopaxi by Frederic Edwin Church from 1861.

This South America volcano is a great inspiration for a set that draws from the meso-American influences. Ixalan block also included the art that inspired an investigation into this Magic art mimicking life project in the first place–Chris Rahn’s Castaway’s Despair.

This piece clearly has a reference to Howard Pyle’s 1909 painting Marooned. The sense of defeat in both pieces is clear, and the ambiguous title leaves the viewer wondering if the pirate was stranded due to an accident at sea or if he is being punished for some transgression, both questions that Jace is likely asking himself as well since he has no memories before Ixalan at this point in the story. The art contributes to the story and builds empathy for the protagonist.

Some Less Subtle

In Unstable we were introduced to the full-art, borderless basic lands, and the basic Mountain, which is a derivative of Max Rive’s photograph in the Dolomites in Italy. Magic art mimicking life has been a theme threaded through the game all the way from the earliest days of the game to the present. As for some unusual Magic art mirroring reality, Christopher Rush’s Descendant of Kiyomaro from Saviors of Kamigawa is as good as a screen capture of Seizo Fukumoto in the film Last Samurai.

These examples are like Easter eggs for the well-studied viewer, something additional for them to enjoy on top of the wonderful scenes and settings depicted.

Magic Art Inspiring Other Art

All of the examples I have given so far have been Magic art imitating life, but our world has also paid homage to Magic art at various times. RK Post told me that the costume used for his model of Unmask was later worn by Inara on Firefly. Then there is the Magic art referencing itself—my favorite artist in all of Magic, Blood Artist, is painting the scene depicted in Curse of Oblivion.


The self-referencing nature of this interaction is an amazing example of art inspiring art and is a wonderful connection by the artists Jana Schirmer and Johannes Voss.

Noticing the Unnoticed

Each time you look at a Magic card, I invite you to notice the art. Try to decipher whether you are glancing into a fantasy realm, or if you are looking through a fun-house mirror that shows a part of your own world. Do you feel an inexplicable sense of familiarity?

In the same vein of recognizing the unrecognized, the artists I reached out to for this article were all very helpful and I encourage you to support them through their websites:

If Wizards released APAC-style lands of the Americas, what landmarks do you think they would feature? What other Magic art do you think was inspired by real-world art or places? I’m looking forward to seeing your thoughts in the comments!

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