Approach of the Second Sun - Illustration by Kev Walker

Approach of the Second Sun | Illustration by Kev Walker

We all have a Magic: The Gathering art story, don’t we? You know, that moment that hooked you with art that was so evocative that you were willing, perhaps even excited, to try to learn all the rules to the game.

I started playing in Ice Age, and the first card that got to me was Daniel Gelon’s Scaled Wurm. I was kind of obsessed with Peter Dicksinson’s The Flight of Dragons at the time, and a huge part of the appeal was the totally unique dragon art of Wayne Anderson, and that Scaled Wurm made me want to shuffle up and live in Dominia (the MTG world, pre retcon to Dominaria).

The art is a huge part of why Magic the greatest game ever made. And we all have our favorites, so here are my 20 favorite Magic artists.

Okay. Ready? Let’s go!

What Are “Best Artists” in MTG?

Inga and Esika - Illustration by Wayne Reynolds

Inga and Esika | Illustration by Wayne Reynolds

Well, they’re my favorites!

I’m going to try to convince you I’m right, that my ranking is reasonable, but of course this is a super subjective thing! A quick look at other such lists online has a different best artist for each article I found, so I certainly don’t expect to win you all over. But if you’re anything like me, this kind of read is going to be a fun look at a key piece of Magic, and perhaps I’ll highlight someone you weren’t expecting?

A note on methods. Three criteria.

First, I decided that to make the list of best Magic artists, you needed to have been around for a bit with a substantial body of work. With over 1500 artists in the history of Magic, this made sense as a way to narrow down the field. As much as I love Sylvain Sarrailh’s Utopia Sprawl, I’ll need to see more cards from this promising new Magic artist to make a larger judgment. I decided an artist needed at least 50 Magic cards to their name, which still leaves over 200 to choose from. I also ruled out some old favorites who, over that time, had a few too many awkward pieces for the sum total to be grand mastery of this form.

Second, it’s important to note that MTG art isn’t art the same way a regular painting or drawing or digital piece is. It’s art for a commercial purpose, following some sort of brief from WotC, and that art will be on a game piece played in a game. Thus, I think the best artists aren’t only making beautiful art, but they’re also contributing something significant to the experience of the game. The conversation between the art and what the card does should create something that’s greater than the sum of all those parts for it to be great Magic art. And that can range from the childlike humor of Jesper Ejsing’s Restless Cottage to the deep horror of Jeremy Jarvis’s Ad Nauseam to the paralyzing sadness of Chase Stone’s Zhalfirin Void to the surprising romanticism of Rebecca Guay’s Regenerate to all the other feels we might want to have while playing this game. Although I’m not an artist, I teach visual rhetorics and game design, among other things, so I do have a bias toward the functional side of these arts.

Third, there are excellent artists that WotC has parted relationship with for problematic statements and actions. I think character matters and am with Hannah Gadsby about Picasso, so I’ll follow WotC’s lead on that.

#20. Mark Tedin

This is surely a boomer pick, I know, but within reason! Some of the most iconic cards in the game were first illustrated by Mark Tedin, and having played since almost the beginning, it’s almost impossible for me to separate the game from his art. From his Alpha Timetwister and Sol Ringto Necropotence and Juzám Djinn, these images are Magic to a lot of players.

My favorites among his works just embrace the astonishingly weird, like Leviathan, Thought Lash, Nevinyrral's Disk, the iconic Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and his really disturbing Thrull token.

#19. Carl Critchlow

This is another personal one for me, as Carl Critchlow’s dark, smudgy, shadowy art defined the Weatherlight era of art for me. That era of Magic pulled me back in after the wildly uneven sets of the previous years, and the murky vibe of this art is part of what kept me wanting more Magic. The vibe is there in Loxodon Gatekeeper, which has a totally different mood than every other loxodon card by other artists.

A few favorites are Nantuko Husk, Exhume, Cathartic Adept, Nim Replica, Bog Raiders, Morinfen, Darksteel Colossus, and Discordant Dirge.

#18. Ilse Gort

Having only been at it a few years, Ilse Gort, for me, is the most compelling Magic artist of animals. Her Cat token with its jaunty necklace and those saddlebags that I’m just going to retcon as a toolbelt filled with supplies for its adventures is one of the cutest tokens in Magic. There are too many to list, but a few of my faves are Courier Bat, Flourishing Fox, her owlbear Illusion token, Prowling Felidar, Spirited Companion, Squirrel Sovereign, and Yoshimaru, Ever Faithful.

#17. Wayne Reynolds

Everything feels like mid-flight for Wayne Reynolds, screaming, leaping, laughing, like Inga and Esika, Piston-Fist Cyclops, Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni, Skeletal Vampire, and Ashling the Pilgrim.

The other thing is the goblins. This is my overall favorite body of goblin work in the game. There’s just something so wry and knowing about these goblins, something a bit beyond the typical goblins-are-stupid tropes that I really enjoy: Mad Auntie, Arms Dealer, Ib Halfheart, Goblin Tactician, and Facevaulter.

#16. Siddharth Chaturvedi

Many Magic artists have used a more painterly style over the years, and Drew Tucker’s early work like Hurr Jackal and Gravebind come to mind as perhaps polarizing pieces of Magic art. But there’s a lovely give and take in Siddharth Chaturvedi’s work between the painterly oils and emotive, representational fantasy, as in the majestic Thriving Ibex. Some other favorites are: Dauthi Voidwalker, Demon of Catastrophes, Garrison Cat, Hullbreacher, the store championship version of Strangle, and my favorite, the inked Life of Toshiro Umezawa.

#15. Yongjae Choi

So many characters on MTG cards are yelling, screaming, biting. But Yongjae Choi is a master of faces of many expressions. It’s only partially a joke to consider Zndrsplt, Eye of Wisdom. So much with so little to work with! You might have forgotten the wistful dreaming of Oko, Thief of Crowns while your opponent was elking your board, but there are so many others: Anje, Maid of Dishonor, Chevill, Bane of Monsters, Gisa, Glorious Resurrector, Fight with Fire, Prosper, Tome-Bound, Tibalt, Cosmic Impostor, and even the amazing first Fractured Identity.

#14. Campbell White

One of the newest artists on my list, Campbell White is a master of light. After decades of Thomas Kinkade ads in the backs of magazines, that sounds kinda bad, but look at the way the light becomes a character, an embodiment of deep magic: Arcbound Mouser, Atmosphere Surgeon, Burn Down the House, Multiple Choice, Radiant Grace, Reduce to Memory, The Reality Chip, my favorite Devil token, and his truly masterful Disdainful Stroke.

#13. Rebecca Guay

Everyone knows the original Bitterblossom. The foremost pen and ink style Magic artist, Rebecca Guay’s work creates an ethereal, almost elemental magic that feels like it nods at the pre Raphaelites and Arthur Rackham while forging its own spells: Angelic Renewal, Auramancer, Dwell on the Past, the original Gaea's Blessing, Predict, Priest of Titania, Regenerate, Seedtime, and Traveler's Cloak. Her Commander Masters Forest is my favorite forest.

There are cards on that list that aren’t quite good enough to sleeve up for Commander, but I find myself doing so anyway because I love to see them. No one else really does that for me.

#12. Yeong-Hao Han

You know of Yeong-Hao Han from Burnished Hart, most likely, or perhaps various runes and equipment and gadgets, like Thaumatic Compass. I love so much about his work, from the detail to the use of light. But I find a lot of creative solutions to what I imagine were challenges in the art briefs in the work. Blightbelly Rat, for example, looks a bit like a Phyrexian breaking through a creature and also a bit like cosplay. Croaking Counterpart has that old school children’s book vibe while also being pretty funny, especially when you connect it with Angelfire Ignition.

But there’s just a lot of art that makes me sit up and take notice. How would you visualize the ideas in Experimental Synthesizer[card], [card]Infinite Obliteration, Lurking Automaton, or Winterthorn Blessing? His basic Island for Jumpstart is also my very favorite Island ever.

#11. Jesper Ejsing

As much as I like dark and twisty fantasy art, I wasn’t always a fan of the look and feel of Lorwyn block art. The exception, in large part because of his figures of meticulously detailed whimsy, is Jesper Ejsing. See his Prickly Boggart, for example.

Why is Colossal Dreadmaw showing off it’s fantastic head feathers with a jaunty tilt of the head? How is that pixie going to use that monstrous book in Enthusiastic Study? And Fblthp, the Lost, Fearless Fledgling, Teething Wurmlet?

His Reliquary Tower is the one you know best. Good vibes there, yeah?

#10. Izzy

Izzy Medrano’s characters come to life on the card like no others. A master of light and shadow with that Aethershield Artificer twinkle in the eye, those Goblin Researcher’s hands, and the bad ass attitude of Dovin's Veto and Fairgrounds Warden, his characters all have this feeling of being caught in the middle of something awesome, but pausing, for a sec, looking at you through the frame of the card and asking you to check out what’s next.

And there’s a totally metal phantasmagoria in there, as well. I don’t know what a Grief Tyrant could possibly be, but I can feel it in that art. Hand of the Praetors? Peer into the Abyss? Genius.

#9. Gabor Szikszai

There’s a lot to love in this art, but Gabor Szikszai is the best artist in Magic for synergizing the art with the gameplay of the card. That link is important in card art to make it feel like you are playing a game in the world of the art, not just playing with tiny rectangular windows into a world that is separate from you. There’s the classic split second of Krosan Grip with Zoltan Boros, the way Gloomlance clearly skewers something that seems Selesnya, the way the art in Grand Arbiter Augustin IV forces you to slow down to see it clearly, the four “cards” you’re looking at in Thieves' Fortune, the way Bloodsky Berserker’s two axes seem animated by magic, and the way it’s clearly gonna take a bit for all the scutes to finally get here in Scute Mob.

#8. Adam Paquette

A prolific lands artist who has done every single one of my favorite Swamps), Adam Paquette’s vistas ooze with saturated colors and dramatic compositions, from his Command Tower to his Simic Guildgate to his seeming Lord of the Rings wink in his Snow-Covered Mountain.

But there’s also a lot of great ideas here, as in Winding Way, Geist-Fueled Scarecrow, The Irencrag, and Eidolon of Philosophy.

#7. Victor Adame Minguez

You may not want to like his work given how traumatic it might be to sit across the table from his Atraxa, Praetors' Voice, but there’s so much here in these paintings. I especially love the way so many of Victor Adame Minguez’s pieces look like a small part of a bigger story. Take Deadeye Rig-Hauler. You’re invited to participate in the story here, even if you don’t want to! It’s a game, and while we play, we’re part of the narrative. I love what that kind of art decision brings to our literal table: Accursed Horde, Drag to the Underworld, Ovalchase Dragster, Tyvar, Jubilant Brawler, and others. This is a small thread to pull in a more complex body of work, but it’s my favorite thread.

#6. Svetlin Velinov

Magic’s second most prolific artist with almost 400 pieces, Svetlin Velinov’s art is all about character design, and his characters are often indelible, including Arcbound Prototype, Brash Taunter, Clackbridge Troll, Hullbreaker Horror, Memnite, Niv-Mizzet, Parun, and Thing in the Ice . He’s also done my favorite all-time Goblin token and one of my new top five Mountains.

There’s a nice line of humor in much of his work, for example, Riveteers Ascendency and Pensive Minotaur, but there’s also some lovely bits of pathos that underlie his character-forward style, as in the figure on the right that anchors Life's Finale.

#5. Nils Hamm

It’s all about Baleful Strix, right? Maybe Amoeboid Changeling?  Hamm’s dark, detailed, and creepy phantasmagoria is Innistrad, for me, with the original Delver of Secrets, Dungeon Geists, and Skin Invasion, to name a few. And that style adds depth and a determined weirdness to what could otherwise be simpler concepts. Just take a look at Once and Future, Lucid Dreams, Rain of Revelation, Glimmer Bairn. It also adds a strange whimsy to otherwise dark imaginings, like Grave Titan, Eyes Everywhere, and his Bone Splinters for Jumpstart.

#4. Alayna Danner

John Avon, watch your back! Alayna Danner has created some of the most amazing lands in the last few years, including the two best Evolving Wilds in the game for Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and Wilds of Eldraine. Have a gander at Animal Sanctuary, Arctic Treeline, Edgewall Inn, Highland Forest, Path of Ancestry, the new Secluded Glen, and Thriving Heath. It’s not all lands, but as with Alpine Moon and Release to Memory, you can see her love for rich environments.

#3. Magali Villeneuve

When you picture Chandra in your mind, isn’t it Magali Villeneuve’s Chandra, Torch of Defiance? Villeneuve, for me, has a way of finding a way to portray her characters that makes them the most iconic version. Consider Galadriel of Lothlórien. It’s a lot to make me stop thinking about Cate Blanchett, but that’s how to do it. You see it again in Mirri, Weatherlight Duelist, Serra the Benevolent, and Éowyn, Fearless Knight. Tell me Eriette of the Charmed Apple isn’t genius down to her high collar. And you know you like those Dominaria United full art stained glass lands!

#2. John Avon

Quite often a number 1 on lists like this, John Avon is the semi-official lands painter in Magic. He does more than lands, but even then there’s often a clear focus on the landscape. It’s too easy to see Avon and Velinov as opposites, as there are too many artworks to make these kinds of distinctions reliably, but take a look at Dawntreader Elk, Eternity Vessel, Naya Sojourners, Pyrotechnics, Spectral Shift, and even his version of Millstone, which of course has it rolling down a mountain!

The lands matter. It’s the signature piece of the Magic: The Gathering rules set, from my perspective, and the feel of the lands puts me in the game more than anything else. Would we even have full art lands still if Avon’s full art lands for Unhinged weren’t perennial favorites?.  I can’t list all the great lands, and I’m sure I’ll leave off a favorite, but here’s my top five:

#1. Kev Walker

Magic’s most prolific artist, with almost 500 cards to his credit, Kev Walker’s work is often infused with a hell-yeah spirit. So many big cards in the game are Walker’s, from the original Damnation to Field of the Dead to the original Kamigawa Myojin. For me, Walker is the artist most likely to elicit an audible “cool” from me, pushing a concept to its extremes. And as a draft player I’ve always appreciated the way he elevates the feel of commons.

Some of my favorites are Carrion Imp, Deathgaze Cockatrice, Divergent Transformations, Fleshtaker, Late to Dinner, Sanitarium Skeleton, and Undying Evil.

I’d like to specifically highlight Cover of Darkness as I close on Walker. I love the visual impact of the chiaroscuro style here. It really pops, but what I love the most is the way it connects with the title of the card and even how it works. The people here are sneaking through a cover of darkness, as it’s literally night outside. But they’re also skulking through a sewer, where I guess only black creatures and old rusted artifacts live, which is the rules text for the fear mechanic. I love how that kind of thing elevates the game.

Wrap Up

Damnation - Illustration by Kev Walker

Damnation | Illustration by Kev Walker

Well. I feel good about that list, but I can’t help wonder about the more than 1500 artists I had to leave off. Certainly, ranking art seems a little nonsensical, but there are ways in which it makes a lot of sense. We do this with art a lot, in lots of contexts, and I think it helps give form to the complex history of visual culture. It’s a story. One version anyway. And there are plenty of other stories.

For me, I’d rather have MTG fans up in arms about how I missed a part of the story or about their better story than not thinking about the work of these hundreds of skilled Magic artists who continue to bring my favorite game to life every day.

Whaddya say? Wanna give us your version of this story? Hit me up with your top twenty in the comments below or over on Discord!

Until next time, stay safe!

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