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  • August 24, 2023 15 min read 0 Comments

    As it enters its 30th year, Magic is undergoing something of a metamorphosis. With more products than ever being released, each catering to a different niche group within the player base, many long-time fans are concerned that their beloved card game simply isn’t being made for them any more.

    Where these stalwart sentinels of Magic, and the newer players with whom they seemingly stand in opposition, can take joint refuge, however, is the Commander format. By far the most popular way to play the game, the 100-card singleton spectacular continues to grow year on year, absorbing every card from every set into its monolithic mass, easily rolling over the likes of Standard, Modern, and Legacy in terms of player numbers. To play Commander is to enjoy the full extent of Magic as a game and as a tool for building communities and relationships, and Commander Masters is a grand celebration of that fact.

    Within its absurdly long card list, you’ll find every Commander staple you’ve ever heard of and lots more you haven’t, many of which return with stunning new artwork by some of the game’s biggest names. We’re talking Richard Kane Ferguson, Ron Spencer, Drew Tucker, Pete Venters, Donato Giancola, and that’s just for starters. As always, these esteemed artists bring their A-game to every piece they produce, but how do their new interpretations hold up against the iconic original pieces that inspired them?

    We’ve decided to split this Rumble into two parts, with this first part focusing on the bounty of borderless art cards that Commander Masters blessed us with. Polish up your art critic glasses, and let’s get to work!

    Classic Genius, or New Hotness? The eternal struggle continues…

    Reprint Rumble: Commander Masters Edition!

    Arcane Signet

    arcane signet art

    OMA's Pick (Click to expand)

    New Hotness

    As a card that appears in roughly two-thirds of all Commander decks, chances are you’re intimately familiar with Arcane Signet if you have even a passing acquaintance with the format. Functionally it’s one of the best mana rocks ever printed, but how does it fare artistically? Dan Scott’s original take is a solid effort, showing a huge ring with a distinct symbol adorning the hand of an unknown character. The symbol, and the blue hue it exudes, calls to mind Ravnica’s House Dimir, but this is something else entirely: something powerful and mysterious beyond our ken.

    The light golds and blues used in the surrounding design of the ring create a feeling of safety, of Magic that can be used to positive ends, but the setting is important to bear in mind here. Arcane Signet comes to us from the plane of Eldraine: a fairytale world where things are seldom what they seem. This knowledge, and the surrounding darkness of the background, add a dark edge that brings some much-needed texture to the piece.

    Drew Tucker’s Commander Masters interpretation takes a radically different approach. Not only practically, since Tucker’s piece uses traditional oil on hardboard rather than the more modern illustration techniques employed in Scott’s original, but tonally as well, with the darkness of the Signet much more explicit from the off here. We are shown a hooded figure, draped in blacks and blues, holding up the hand that now bears the Arcane Signet. The figure’s arm is the literal and figurative highlight of this piece, shown at a distinct angle that makes it look stretched out and otherworldly, particularly when combined with the creeping blue glow that emanates from the Signet and washes over it. If it weren’t for the still-human face of the figure in the bottom-right, you’d be forgiven for thinking the character shown was some kind of undead mage, but that little detail cements the corruption as an effect of wearing the Signet, and shows us the dead-eyed expression of the wearer, leaving no doubt that this ring’s power, as is often the case in fantasy, comes at a great cost.

    Both pieces are excellent portrayals of powerful magical rings, and both are therefore successful in what they set out to achieve, but we have to give the edge to New Hotness here. Tucker’s piece simply has more of a narrative to it, and features a much more memorable composition in terms of angles, colors, and lighting.

    Champion’s Helm

    champions helm art

    OMA's Pick (Click to expand)

    New Hotness

    One of the best things about a card receiving new artwork is the opportunity it gives the artist involved to reinterpret the themes and ideas of the original, presenting a fresh take that is both mechanically and tonally resonant. Champion’s Helm is a perfect example of this, with Paolo Parente completely flipping the script on Alan Pollack’s original in a way that feels subversive yet appropriate. The original is a fairly straightforward interpretation of the powerful legendary-matters equipment, showing a shining golden helm seated on a polished onyx plinth, against a backdrop of carved stone and red drapes. It’s unclear whether this Helm is still in active use, or if it’s been enshrined in honor of the titular Champion, but either way it’s shown here with reverence, in a grand, brightly lit setting. The loose almost-symmetry of the composition lends it an air of formality: a bit of pomp and circumstance that effectively establishes the respect that this Champion had, or has.

    Parente goes in the opposite direction, choosing to spotlight the inevitable encroaching of time, and the way in which all of us, no matter how accomplished our deeds in life, will eventually be forgotten. His version shows the Helm adorning the head of a long-dead skeleton, sitting a spiderwebbed throne in a long-abandoned castle. Neither this skeleton, the Champion of this piece, nor his Helm have been enshrined or honored as we saw in the original: in this case, the Champion hasn’t even been buried. Despite the greatness implied by his grand helm and neckwear, the Champion has been left to rot in his castle, his Helm unclaimed even by thieves. It’s a refreshingly grounded interpretation of the brief, and one that manages to imply an entire fantasy story in miniature within a single stunning frame.

    Unsurprisingly, we’re going to have to go with New Hotness for this round. Both pieces are great in their own ways, and Pollack’s certainly makes excellent use of a striking color palette, but it’s a fairly pedestrian take when compared to the more interesting, nuanced approach Parente employed in his version.

    Command Tower

    command tower art

    OMA's Pick (Click to expand)

    Classic Genius

    Another stone-cold staple of the format, Command Tower is a must-have in any deck playing two or more colors. For this reason, Ryan Yee’s original art for the card has become one of the game’s most well-known pieces. Thankfully, it’s excellent on its own merits, too. It shows a dark stone tower wreathed in a multicolored storm, the upper windows illuminated by an errant flash of lightning. The tower itself almost appears to be a ruin, based on the varying heights of the surrounding pillars and the debris floating in the clutches of the storm, but the core structure appears to be standing strong. It’s a piece that demonstrates excellent use of lighting, with the tower and its surrounding environs mostly bathed in darkness, and the storm adding a nice splash of contrast, appropriate given the multicolored functionality of the card in-game.

    Donato Giancola takes this idea, of portraying the range of mana the Tower can produce via colorful elements in the artwork, and ratchets it up to 11. His take on Command Tower isn’t a solemn stronghold, but a grand, ornate monolith, situated in an almost comically tranquil forest setting. Waterfalls, twisting tree roots, colorful birds: all of these elements conspire to make this take on Command Tower feel much more welcoming than Yee’s, to say nothing of the rainbow that arcs its way across the entire canvas, ensuring your eye never wanders too far from a splash of vibrant color. The Tower itself is also incredibly detailed, finished with delicate carvings and studded with precious jewels, as varied in hue as the rest of the piece.

    While Giancola’s reinterpretation is bold and striking, we have to give the edge to Yee’s original in this round. It just feels like a stronger, more focused composition, and one that does more with less in terms of atmosphere and tone. Classic Genius gets a point on the board with this one.

    Disrupt Decorum

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    OMA's Pick (Click to expand)

    New Hotness

    Some Reprint Rumble rounds are close calls, with both pieces bringing enough style and substance to the table to make deciding between them a difficult task. This round, the round in which we deal with Disrupt Decorum, is not one of these. With no disrespect to Sidharth Chaturvedi, who delivers an admirable piece that evokes the work of old masters in its use of dramatic, almost theatrical angles and lighting, her piece simply can’t compare to the force of nature that Ron Spencer unleashed upon the cardboard for this one.

    Reframing the large-scale conflict implied by the card’s mechanical effect as a food fight was an inspired start, letting Spencer get creative with color and shape in a way that most Magic artists don’t. Every character in the piece is drenched in detail and, more often than not, food, from the man wearing eggs for a hat on the left, to the mage being slammed with a salad on the right. The use of a bold yellow void in lieu of a traditional background makes the piece feel like artwork from a Terry Pratchett cover, as does the sheer volume of comic action and nonsense Spencer manages to capture within a single frame.

    New Hotness was an easy choice for the winner of this round, but Chaturvedi’s piece certainly deserves some props regardless. In another time, in another round, he may well have taken home the trophy, but the luck of the gods wasn’t with him this day.

    Dread Return

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    OMA's Pick (Click to expand)

    Classic Genius

    One of the most aptly-named cards in the game’s history, Dread Return is an immensely powerful reanimator spell, good enough to single-handedly enable entire archetypes. The card ended up banned in Modern, but not before it saw enough play to cement Kev Walker’s excellent artwork as part of the Magic canon. It remains excellent to this day, showing some kind of skeletal Lhurgoyf emerging from a crack in the earth, right in the path of an unfortunate rider. His horse rears up in response, creating a nice sense of dynamism, but the overall tone here is an ominous one. The sharp features of the risen beast, alongside the dull green smoke rising from the crack and enveloping the scene, create a sense that something truly terrible and otherworldly has arisen.

    Thomas M. Baxa goes for something similar, transplanting the action to the desert plane of Amonkhet, and spotlighting a powerful demon with more than a touch of the Nicol Bolas about them. His take is certainly impressive, conjuring a grander sense of scale than the original through clever placement of background pyramids and palm trees, alongside an oppressive red horizon. His bold yet delicate linework does a stellar job of making the central demon intimidating, with hook-like claws adorning the ends of his hands and tail, but the light human element present in Walker’s original is sadly absent, with no other living things featured in the piece.

    For this reason, despite the excellent effort Baxa puts in here, we have to give the round to Classic Genius. Walker’s piece just feels a bit more appropriate for a reanimation spell, and features a simple, grounded narrative thread to boot.

    Extraplanar Lens

    extraplanar lens art

    OMA's Pick (Click to expand)

    New Hotness

    The idea behind Extraplanar Lens, an artifact that affords you glimpses of other planes through Magical means, is an extremely solid basis for a Magic card, and the artwork on both versions more than do the concept justice. Lars Grant-West opts for a somewhat abstract approach, showing the titular Lens suspended in mid-air seemingly independently, the plane it’s showing spilling out beyond the limits of the Lens and into the background beyond. The Lens here is a thing of beauty, a finely-etched golden ring with five winglike appendages, each corresponding to one of the five colors of mana. Their irregular spacing implies that they act as ‘tuning’ devices of some kind for the Lens, letting the user pick up different planes if they know how to set it up right. The background is excellent also, packed with rich use of color, but the fact that the Lens is floating, and has a faint white outline surrounding it, creates an odd disconnect, making it feel like an artificial showcase rather than a tangible part of the Magic universe.

    Ron Spears’ take on the Lens has no such issue. Through dense background detail, Spears firmly and immediately establishes the setting as an artificer’s lab on Kaladesh, the high-contrast golds and blues taking the viewer right back to the Masterpiece days in an instant. The large-scale industrial machinery doesn’t just set the scene, however, but establishes just how much energy it takes to power an artifact like this. Granted, this version of the Lens is capable of viewing three separate planes at once, so such allowances are expected. Those three planes appear to be New Capenna, Kaldheim, and Ravnica, each visually distinct enough to stand out against both the background of the piece at large and against each other. The piece’s masterful final touch is the inclusion of an artificer in the center of the frame, poring over all three panes from under his dark orange hood. Why are they watching? What are they looking for? Are their intentions good or ill? We’ll never know the answers to these questions, but the fact that the piece makes us ask them is a testament to the immersive power Spears brought to bear on this one.

    In what is an obvious outcome, perhaps, after such glowing praise, we’re giving this round to New Hotness. Grant-West’s original was a strong creative piece, but it felt more like concept art than a fully-fledged piece of Magic’s world. Spears takes things to the next level, creating a whole location, character and sub-story built around the Lens, making him a worthy winner in this round.

    Fact or Fiction

    fact or fiction art

    OMA's Pick (Click to expand)

    New Hotness

    It may not be the final round of today’s Rumble, but Fact or Fiction is definitely the title card for the event: a showdown between two of the greatest Magic artists of all time. In the red corner, we have Terese Nielsen, and in the blue corner, we have Richard Kane Ferguson. Two masters enter, but only one will leave. Let’s get down to it. Nielsen comes out swinging with her original piece, a detailed diorama of Squee and Hanna, two iconic members of the Weatherlight crew, agonizing over admin. It’s a brilliant character study, putting Squee’s frazzled incompetence and Hanna’s exasperated frustration on full display through great use of facial expression and posture. Nielsen’s trademark eye for detail is showcased throughout, with little touches sprinkled across the window panes and bookcases of the background. It’s a simple but highly effective start.

    Richard Kane Ferguson takes a different approach, presenting a much less direct take on the concept in his ethereal, almost abstract style. In his piece, a Faerie lifts a mighty sword as a golden moon rises above a background horizon, their swirling robes blending seamlessly with the waters cascading down from the foreground cliffs. As with much of Ferguson’s work, there’s a dreamlike feel to this one, with the collapsed perspective creating the impression of a page from a story book rendered on cardboard. While the original made a joke of Squee’s inability to distinguish Fact from Fiction on the documents he was sifting through, this version seems to ask the viewer if the scene they’re looking at is Fact of Fiction: whether it’s real, or a mere illusion conjured by Magic’s notoriously tricksy Faeries. Either way, it’s beautiful to behold, with exquisite detail adorning every inch of the frame.

    Both of these pieces are excellent, but in the end we have to give the round to New Hotness. Ferguson’s piece is bold and iconic, giving the reader more room to explore and ask questions for themselves than Nielsen’s more straightforward rendition.

    Jeweled Lotus

    jeweled lotus art

    OMA's Pick (Click to expand)

    Classic Genius

    One of the more recent additions to Magic’s long line of Lotuses, Jeweled Lotus is a Commander staple that shines just as brightly artistically as it does mechanically. Alayna Danner’s original take is steeped in a reverent kind of luxury, with the Lotus itself, an impossibly intricate mass of multicolored cut-gem petals, presented on a plush purple cushion. In the background, the detailed stained-glass windows of a church are visible, equally beautiful but lit considerably darker, so as not to steal the spotlight from the titular star of the show. The whole scene, despite the bright colors of the Lotus, has somber religious overtones, adding a lot of weight to the powerful artifact portrayed that is then reinforced through the card’s mechanics.

    Olena Richards switches things up for her Commander Masters redux, shifting focus purely to the Lotus itself. Gonae is the grounded, thematically resonant church backdrop, and in its place stands some kind of fractal abyss, intended to reflect the internal beauty of each of the Lotus’ petals. The design of the Lotus has also been tweaked, now featuring an intricate gilded outer shell on each petal, as opposed to the pure gemstone of the original. Thanks to the choice of color palette used here, rich in blacks and deep purples, Jeweled Lotus takes on an almost cosmic quality, reinforced by the petals that seem to be flying off independently into the foreground as if sailing through a vacuum. It manages to recapture similar vibes to the original, conjuring an atmosphere of power and mystery, albeit in a very different way.

    There are strong cases to be made for both takes on Jeweled Lotus, with both easily conveying the power and beauty of the central artifact well, but we’re going to go with Classic Genius on this one. The more grounded setting and more centralized Lotus somehow match the card’s concept more, and feel more special than in Richards’ rendition.

    Magus of the Wheel

    magus of the wheel art

    OMA's Pick (Click to expand)

    Classic Genius

    Both versions of Magus of the Wheel make use of the same core concept, and very similar character designs and tones, but with key differences in composition and perspective. The original piece, which comes to us from Carl Frank, shows a devilish-looking red mage, beckoning the viewer towards a kind of ritualistic roulette table with a smile and a ‘step right up’ sweep of the hands. The molten lava flowing down into the cavern beyond implies that the action here is taking place in one of the deep, hidden parts of the world, creating a sense of the forbidden right off the bat. This is reinforced by the wheel itself, which features a range of trinkets, from jawbones to beetle husks, separated by human bones stuck like yardsticks into the hard stone. Obviously the ritual about to take place is unsavory in nature, and the expression on the Magus’ face doesn’t hide this in the slightest. In fact, he seems to revel in the darkness which he peddles.

    For the Commander Masters version, Scott M. Fischer swings the camera round to focus more on the ‘Magus’ part of the card rather than the ‘Wheel’ part, while still largely maintaining the same taboo energy seen in the original. While the Magus certainly looks more serious here, enjoying his acts of evil less than his predecessor, they’re definitely still implied. The tools on his belt alone are enough to make one shudder, thinking of what he plans to do with the collection of saws, blades, and hammers he carries, but the huge flaming wheel on his back just hammers this idea home. While less creepingly sinister than the Wheel present in the original, the way that it burns, and reflects the burning of the fire spells that encircle his wrists, gives us a taste of the dark powers the Magus wields. Finally, we’d be remiss not to mention the background, which does a stellar job of setting the scene in some sort of wheel-based laboratory. Drawings of wheels, actual wheels, and torture tools line the walls, building up a details picture of the experiments the Magus has been carrying out into, as the flavor text reveals, the nature of time.

    This one is hard to call, since both deliver on their intended goals so well, and carve out their own nice little micro-narratives in the process. That said, we prefer the energy present in Frank’s original, and enjoy the brand of straightforward, cackling evil he manages to capture so well there, so this round goes to Classic Genius.

    Treasure Nabber

    treasure nabber art

    OMA's Pick (Click to expand)

    New Hotness

    Before we sign off on this inaugural round of our Commander Masters Reprint Rumble, we thought it only fair that we represent one of Magic’s most iconic creature types: the humble Goblin. Since Alpha these loveable rogues have been terrorizing our collective battlefields and warming our collective hearts, and that looks set to continue as Magic moves into its 30th anniversary and beyond. Today we’re looking at Treasure Nabber, a direct-to-Commander Goblin from 2018 with the ability to steal any mana rocks your opponents use for one turn only. This ability is reflected nicely in Alex Konstad’s original art, which shows a Goblin, unusual in the vast size of his ears, sitting by a pile of pilfered treasure, gazing into what is, undoubtedly, a Sol Ring. It’s a great reference to the most popular mana rock in the format, and a great way of marrying flavor with function, since you’ll almost always get to ‘borrow’ at least one Sol Ring per game if the Nabber stocks around. It’s a clever bit of meta-art, but the washed-out palette unfortunately doesn’t let it shine as brightly as it could.

    Pete Venters’ fresh take on the Nabber has no such issues. It’s an extremely vibrant piece, moving the action to Ixalan to take advantage of their blue-skinned Goblins for a rich color base. These blues are then complemented by deep reds and bright oranges, with a light brown background that seemingly places the action in a ship’s hold. The central Goblin here is also bursting with personality, from the satisfied snarl plastered across his face, to the way in which he examines a stolen gem by clutching it in his toes rather than his hands. These details imply so much about who the Goblin is and how he lives his life, and the bright palette reinforces both the depth and humor of the character in an appropriate way.

    While we love the meta reference Konstad delivers in his piece, it’s hard to deny that Venters gives us a lot more to love in his piece, creating and developing a fully-realized character in the space of a single frame. For that reason, the final round of this Reprint Rumble goes to New Hotness.


    The Final Tally

    So there you have it: the dust has settled, the troops have marched off home, and the first part of our Reprint Rumble for Commander Masters is at an end. It was a hard-fought effort on both sides, but in the end a clear victor stands tall and proud: New Hotness, winning 6-4 over Classic Genius. It’s a strong start but, as we said in our introduction, it’s only half the story. Next time we’ll be diving back into Commander Masters to look at 10 more of our favorite pieces from the set, before deciding once and for all whether New Hotness or Classic Genius wins the day. Join us then, Reprint Rumblers, for a thrilling conclusion you won’t soon forget!