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December 04, 2023 7 min read

Magic has a certain aesthetic to it. Set in a fantasy world, the artwork has a kind of cohesion to it that communicates, “This is a Magic: The Gathering card.” When the cards are from the same set, that is amplified even further…

…most of the time.

Every once in a while, a card’s artwork doesn’t quite fit in with the broader theme of the set. There may not always be a specific reason other than the fact that the card just doesn’t fit in. Other times, the dissonance is more apparent.

This week, I’m going to highlight a few examples of this “artwork dissonance” as a curious study of some of Magic’s least Magic­-like pieces of art. Note: I’m not going to acknowledge special promos or print variants, Secret Lair cards, Universes Beyond cards, or anything of that nature. These are the normal printing of a card from a normal set that doesn’t quite look like the rest.

Honorable Mention: Aerathi Berserker (Legends)

rathi berserker aerathi

I’m a big fan of Melissa Benson’s artwork. But Aerathi Berserker (misnamed “rathi Berserker” on the original printing of the card because the Ae didn’t print, I guess?) is no Shivan Dragon. I didn’t include him in the main body of the article because, while the figure looks goofy and out of place, he does strike me as a person of fantasy. He could definitely fit in with all the other strange characters from the Legends set.

I just find his facial expression way out of place. If this is supposed to be a berserker—one with Rampage: 3, no less—then shouldn’t he be…berserk? Why isn’t he angry and charging at his enemies? Instead, it looks like he’s posing for a painting to be hung over his fireplace. And why is there no background at all? Something creative could have been included, such as a bunch of dead goblins or orcs the berserker had just killed (hence the bloody ax). Or, if nothing else, maybe some trees or a sky?

8. Stasis, Limited Edition Alpha

stasis art mtg

Kicking this off is, in my opinion, the first card with a non-Magic art aesthetic ever printed: Stasis, from Limited Edition Alpha. The story behind this piece of art is pretty cool. Fay Jones is a legit artist outside of fantasy stuff. In fact, Wikipedia explains that a number of her pieces have been exhibited in public places in the Pacific Northwest.

Why did this famous artist create an abstract piece of art for Magic? Because Fay is Richard Garfield’s Aunt, that’s why! She had been a painter for years before Magic’s invention. Despite not looking like a traditional Magic card, I appreciate the thought-provoking, creative illustration on Stasis. If nothing else, the artwork gives you something to ponder while you’re stuck playing a game of Magic in which you can’t actually cast any spells!

7. Descendants’ Path (Avacyn Restored)

descendants path art

Terese Nielsen has created some of Magic’s most iconic pieces. Perhaps the most recognizable is Force of Will. Did you know the original art for Force of Will is selling at auction right now? As of this article’s writing, the current leading bid is $105,000.

While Descendants’ Path isn’t as powerful a Magic card as Force of Will, its artwork stands out even more for being different. The interesting depiction of black and white images of people, along with elements of nature, and a young girl holding a baby animal in the foreground is not what you’re used to on a Magic card. It’s hard to explain, but hopefully you can see what I mean.

There is a story to this artwork, and Terese Nielsen has explained the backstory on her blog for those who are interested in reading more.

6. Niall Sylvain (The Dark)

The late Christopher Rush is widely viewed as one of the greatest artists from Magic. How can anyone forget the iconic pieces he created, including Lightning Bolt and Black Lotus? His portfolio of Magic artwork is truly unmatched by anyone except for perhaps a small handful of talented artists.

Then there’s Niall Silvain from The Dark. Granted, there are a handful of bizarre pieces of artwork from the small 1994 expansion set. This one stands out to me as being particularly out of place, however. I think it’s the goofy smile on the creature’s face that almost looks cartoony. Phil Foglio is known for his cartoony style, but Christopher Rush is not and so it makes this card feel even more out of place. This is mostly just my opinion, but I just find this piece odd.

5. Deadlock Trap (Kaladesh)

deadlock trap art mtg

(You can find a print of Deadlock Trapat the OMA store).

Ok, I admit I’m breaking my own rules about not including promotional cards in my list. When I was browsing cards looking for bizarre pieces of art, this one caught my eye and I couldn’t skip past it.

Jason Rainville illustrates two lifelike people in the artwork…granted, Nissa’s green eyes makes her look other than human, but Chandra in the foreground could be an angry customer at McDonald’s who didn’t receive extra pickles like she had asked. The angry face is too realistic, if you ask me, giving Deadlock Trap a photo-like quality we’re not used to seeing on Magic art.

I suppose you could boil this down to a compliment for the artist because the people are so lifelike in the art. It just doesn’t look like a Magic card to me, as a result. It’s more like a photograph.

4. Winter Sky (Homelands)

winter sky mtg art

I’m going to wager very few players are familiar with this card, illustrated by Mike Kimble. For one, it’s from an awful set. Second, it’s an older card so not many copies of this 1995 card are going to show up in collections. Third, the card is on the Reserved List (believe it or not) so a reprint is never going to happen. And finally, the card is absolutely awful—read its ability! It’s not even reliable at what it does!

All that aside, we have the strange art depicting a cold woman with a castle and a mountain in the background. While the castle and mountain do give the art a tie in to the fantasy world of Magic, the figure in the foreground seems out of place. While it’s not of photo-quality, the woman looks too normal to be in a Magic card. It’s like the artist painted their aunt and decided it would make for a good piece of Magic art.

3. Frog Tongue (Tempest)

frog tongue mtg

Remember when I mentioned Phil Foglio’s cartoony artwork? Here’s an example of one that really feels out of place in its set. The person with the long tongue has a strange distortion to the shape of his head that is wholly inconsistent with the rest of the creatures in Tempest. What is that creature? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have depicted a recognizable character from the set with the frog tongue?

And what’s with the facial expression on the bug? Why is its face so clear and its expression so exaggerated? No bug looks like that? It’s a facial expression that a comic book character would make. Can’t you picture, say, The Tick making a face like this?

2. Unholy Strength (7th Edition)

unholy strength art

Seventh Edition was a red herring of a set when it came to the artwork. All the core set cards received a face list via new artwork in this set, and many pieces strike me as odd and out of place even to this day.

Gary Ruddell’s Unholy Strength has to take the cake, however. The figure depicted here reminds me of an expression that Ren or Stimpy would make on their cartoon show from the 1990s. The way his facial features are exaggerated, from the elongated tongue to the bulging eye and oversized teeth. Also, why are his muscles so huge but his wrist is still normal sized? I guess the artwork depicts the creature in the midst of his transformation. After years of being used to the original art for Unholy Strength, however, this card really stands out as being…off.

Also, the figure has no legs. Is he a djinn or something? Just weird.

1. Reverse Polarity (Antiquities)

reverse polarity art mtg

The characters in this artwork by Justin Hampton seem like they’re from a fantasy world, and they do look like warriors you’d find on a Magic card. The issue I have is that they look like they’re straight out of a comic book…a really bad comic book!

The dude in the background is swinging a mace while wearing an animal skull for a hat, a skirt open at the side, making a really confused face, and sporting a Fu Manchu moustache. There are too many incongruous features here to make this person anything close to realistic, especially during the time of Antiquities. The character in the foreground doesn’t have as many strange characteristics, but I still marvel at his ridiculous haircut (wig?), strange dual-sash getup, and the tiniest ear I’ve ever seen on a man.

The yellow glow to depict the reversal of damage is understandable, but again it looks like it’s straight from a comic book. This looks nothing like most other cards from this set.


Wrapping It Up

Every once in a while, a card is printed with artwork that feels a bit out of place with the rest of the set. This week, I shared a handful of my favorites, with Stasis and Descendants’ Path being the most extreme. It’s not that I don’t like some of these artworks; they just don’t necessarily strike me as Magic cards.

Some of these pieces would fit in more in a comic book, or perhaps a cartoon from the 90’s.

What about you? Are there other pieces you’ve seen that feel incongruous with the Magic art we’ve come to expect on our cards? Please reach out and share your thoughts and I’d be happy to engage and discuss further!

Sigmund Ausfresser

Sigmund first started playing Magic when Visions was the newest set, back in 1997. After playing casual Magic for about ten years, he tried his hand at competitive play. It took about two years before Sigmund started taking down drafts. Since then, he moved his focus towards Legacy and MTG finance. Now that he's married and works full-time, Sigmund enjoys the game by exploring the original Magic art market with the hopes of acquiring a couple pieces to hang in his home one day soon.

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