Last updated on October 27, 2022
Dinosaur Cat token | Illustration by Brian Valeza
Time to talk tokens! They’re a fundamental part of the game, and their art and science usually go uncelebrated.
What types of tokens can you play? What are the rules around them, and how can you use them to customize your deck? These questions and more can prepare you to get some of this great art on the table.
Let’s get into it!
What Are Tokens in MTG?
The Hive (10th Edition) | Illustration by Ron Spencer
Tokens are permanents in Magic that are created via gameplay, but they aren’t cards in the deck. The very first tokens were created in Alpha with The Hive, but the “Giant Wasp” created by the artifact still hasn’t been printed.
In those dark days players used various items to represent token permanents. Scraps of paper, Warhammer or D&D miniatures, pretzels and other food items, basic lands scrawled with Sharpie… If your collection of Magic tokens has gaps, the most common thing is probably to use a die, often on a face-down sleeved card to indicate that it’s a game object, not a time counter or some other marker.
Paper tokens were first printed in Unglued and have continued ever since. These days players can expect a token of some kind in their booster packs. Most players have more Soldier and Goblin tokens than they know what to do with, but some tokens as expensive since they’re hard to find. The most infamous is probably the Lunar New Year promo Treasure token.
Come with me and sample individual arts across the span of the 540 different tokens. Some are unique and some, like Clues or Treasures, have tons of different arts. It’s a highly subjective enterprise but I’ve focused on five categories: humor, weirdness, cuteness, horror, and evocativeness.
These are my top five. There are a lot of funny tokens in Un-sets, but I have a particular kind of humor in mind.
This is “I see what you did there” funny, not “ha ha” funny, but I think this is the category for this piece by Igor Grechanyi. This Shapeshifter token is made by Battle for Baldur’s Gate’s Black Market Connections, itself an odd version of that idea by Evyn Fong.
The token shows that the Connections is really a kind of riff on the You Meet in a Tavern moment when an adventuring party in D&D comes together. The player is the Shapeshifter, deciding between various classes to start the game. That’s such a wicked cool take on what a shapeshifter itself is. Meta.
#4. Kobolds of Kher Keep
I don’t want to laugh at this guy. He looks so fierce! This totally yoked Kobolds of Kher Keep by Paolo Parente still has a strength of zero, and you can see why. His sword is tiny. His stylistic hat (helmet!) serves little purpose and he’s perched on a fragile, unbalanced platform of rock that seems to be falling apart.
Fine, it’s funny in a mean way, but that’s the central vibe of all kobolds!
This is my favorite of the many different versions of an Ooze token. Artist Izzy has given us an experiment come to life, which is never really the vibe of most cards that make Ooze tokens. But this desktop menace is going all in on grabbing that stick, maybe a magic wand, and you can feel the stretch.
#2. Storm Crow
I haven’t picked many Un-set tokens, even though a lot of them are jokes. It often feels like the joke is too easy or obvious from the card that spawns it.
This token is created by Crow Storm, so the Storm Crow token is a on different level thanks to the awesome dad joke wordplay of that main card. McLean Kendree created a crow struck by lightning, which illuminates its skeleton like a Looney Tunes cartoon.
Weirdest Tokens in Magic
What do I mean by weird? I don’t mean abstractions like Larry MacDougall’s Spirit token for Eventide. I’m looking at the kinds of things you want to stare at for a while to figure out.
Time sinks are useful while waiting for your turn to come around in Commander. There’s detail and there’s a bit of a wonder at what’s going on. It’s maybe not objectively the weirdest art, but it’s the most interestingly unexpected art.
The single-eyed Homunculus players associated with Fblthp, the Lost has been around since Sneaky Homunculus back in Nemesis. Two cards in Shards of Alara, the Puppet Conjurer and this Homunculus token it creates, revamp the look in interesting ways.
These are tiny creepy things as you can see on the Conjurer. The close-up look on Howard Lyon’s token, with its weary eyes looking off in a nighttime landscape, is kind of haunting. The Fblthp mode is obviously still the most common version of homunculi as seen in the recent Innistrad sets, but I want to see more of these.
There have been any number of interpretations of the Beast token over the years, all creative and odd. This insanity by Dave Allsop for New Phyrexia is the best. Things burst through the skin as this (perhaps?) giant rat grows new features, most strikingly a hunchback too big for the legs. It’s wonderfully horrifying.
Thrulls are sacrificial conglomerations, living creations of dead flesh. The art for these has been all over the place.
This horrible Thrull token by Mark Tedin, which went along with the reprint of Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder (art also by Tedin) for Modern Masters, takes the creatures on that card and gives a close-up of a head on a series of limbs. It’s definitely horrifying, but I found myself staring at it just to figure out its structure.
This is a version of a creature players had imagined since Mishra’s Factory was printed in Time Spiral Remastered for Urza’s Factory. It finally arrived in this piece by Mark Tedin that rewards the viewer for continued attention. There’s a wealth of detail to take in while you wait for your turn.
This piece by Aaron Miller for Modern Horizons 2 is a feast for the eyes. There’s that jaunty scorpion tail. What might be a roast is really a set of jaws clamped on that tail. Of course the cursed meal is served with apples and grapes on a butter lettuce garnish. Naturally. And then there’s the shadowy legion of the damned haunting the space (or wallpaper?) behind the table.
There’s more than 10, but these are the best!
Saprolings have been reinterpreted many ways over the years, few of them cute. This jaunty snailish creature with enoki mushrooms for a head by Steve Prescott is a master class in how to make something that doesn’t have eyes cute.
I mean, yeah. Boo here has red eyes, a vicious expression, shockingly large claws for a hamster, and is apparently going for your eyes. I feel like I could win him over if I just had a big enough hamster treat.
#8. Faerie Dragon
If you played D&D as a kid, you wanted the DM to give you one of these as a companion. When you got one, you were so desperate to keep it alive that you never sent it off into combat. Just me?
This terrific piece by Iris Compiet of a laughing Faerie Dragon captures all that so perfectly. Pastel colors, perhaps even made with pastels, speak of childhood whimsy.
#7. Cat Bird
Skycat Sovereign from Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths creates these, a clear riff on Ursula Le Guin’s lovely children’s book, Catwings. This flying kitty by Leesha Hannigan is coming in for a claws-first landing, but all I see are cute widdle toe beans.
This is one of the mice that pull Cinderella’s Enchanted Carriage in the story and some noble in Throne of Eldraine. Working hard on the ball gown, perhaps, this Mouse token from artist Stacie Pitt needs some cheese, stat!
This is a nostalgia pick for this Magic boomer. I got this token in the first Unglued pack I cracked in 1998, back at the beginning of tokens. I already had a Liege of the Hollows so it seemed like fate. Fate to never win a game where I played the Liege!
There’s lots of cute dogs in Magic, but Mowu by XiaoDi Jin is the bestest of bois. Mowu is pretty cute on the art for buddy planeswalker Jiang Yanggu from Magic’s Global Series Jiang Yanggu & Mu Yanling, but this token is a lot.
This may be the hardest token to Murder when you plop it down.
Just look at it! Boars are supposed to be ugly, but no one told that to Tomek Larek, who produced this little guy who looks he’s posing for a magical trail cam.
There’s no way not to provoke controversy with a cuteness list. For my money this Cat token by Ilse Gort for Zendikar Rising is the GOAT. It’s wearing a pair of cool necklaces and has a saddlebag/utility belt thing going on.
#1. Dinosaur Cat
Nope. I lied. This is the cutest. LOOK AT IT!
Yes, there are lots of cats at the top of the list. Yes, I’m biased.
Look into Brian Valeza’s Dinosaur Cat scaly floof’s eyes again and tell me I’m wrong.
Lots of Magic art is of scary things, but these are at the top of the heap.
I’ve seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I am not fooled!
Do you see the way this Rabbit has savaged that flower? Why does artist Andrea Radeck hide its nasty, big, pointed teeth? What razor-sharp incisors await the benighted soul who reaches out to pet it? Stare into the black, black eyes of a vicious monster and see your mortality beckon!
This Skeleton might be not look back at an explosion like a cool action hero, but you noticed the details when you when pair it with the Shards of Alara Skeletonize. It’s a friend, or perhaps enemy, emerging from a fireball. Its flesh is blown away, its chainmail blasted, its red eyes and fierce expression are straight out of Ray Harryhausen’s animations for Jason and the Argonauts.
A great bit of work from Thomas M. Baxa.
#8. Human Wizard
This wizard thing turned out to be a totally crap deal, right? This Human Wizard token is produced by Docent of Perfection, and all three images are created by Nils Hamm. If anything, the token is the creepiest.
There’s a tall monster looming in the corner, an unwilling Brundlefly created by the caged person, and a giant fly on the Docent card. The “wizard” sports a blank expression and the hideous appendages, too. For my money this is peak Eldritch Moon body horror.
This is a pretty messed up piece by Mila Pesic. It’s in a similar space as the previous card, but even more disturbing in some ways. This is what awakens after Xira, the Golden Sting gets you. She laid an egg in this child and it was reborn as this Brundlefly mashup posing for its portrait next to its favorite toy. Why is Xira killing children? Why do the reborn insects retain their memories….
This is pure nightmare fuel between kept memory and the horror of unlife after death.
Where a lot of the others are floating, ephemeral, almost free of their mortal coils, this spirit looks to be dragged from its repose. It’s coming for you with a sword and a decidedly solid looking claw made of… finger bones?
#5. Marit Lage
Players waited a long time for this card. Evoked back in Ice Age with the flavor text on Curse of Marit Lage and Wrath of Marit Lage, it really gets going with the flavor text on Wrath’s Eighth Edition reprint: “Marit Lage lies frozen in a glacier’s heart. Still her dreams take form in our world, stealing the heat from our souls.”
There have been monstrous Eldrazi since then, but the genius of Stephan Martiniere is that when this payoff for Dark Depths finally showed the monster players had been waiting 11 years to see in Cold Snap, it’s not even fully visible. It’s shrouded in mist, unclear, and unknowable. The only reference point is the tiny figure of a doomed person on the beach at the bottom confronted by Magic’s first Lovecraftian nightmare.
I suppose Jason Felix’s piece might be scarier if it were looking right at the player with its red eyes, but I find this composition effective in another way. It’s looking past you. Is it lost? I wonder if there’s still a brain inside. Maybe that brain remembers who it used to be before it woke as this armless, slithering thing.
It’s got a Predator-style set of mandibles and a head that seems to have the head and beady eyes of another kind of monster smashed on to a traditional spider. It’s uncanny and twisted.
Zombies aren’t generally that scary. Slow or fast, any individual zombie always seems beatable. The trouble is when they cluster together.
An individual Zombie token logically shouldn’t be disturbing. This piece by Anna Steinbauer from Eldritch Moon works really well. It has the shadowy forms in the background looming forward, which you notice second. The central figure’s tortured pose coupled with tattering mundane clothing make you wonder if you’ll recognize who this is just when she sinks her teeth into you.
Seb McKinnon is at his best in Rakdos () themes, in my opinion. There’s something about this Demon token’s swooping shadows and flames that satisfy the rules set by my 8-year-old unconscious to govern the structure of my nightmares.
I see this token and imagine that someone else knew what it was like to wake in the middle of the night hoping the blankets would be enough protection.
I’m looking at the overall strength of the art piece here, which is even more subjective than the cutest or scariest. I think you’ll agree that these are striking.
As a bird-watcher I haven’t always loved the way birds are rendered for Magic cards. Either swooping attackers or majestic soarers, Magic birds don’t often capture all the elements of bird-ness at once.
This one by Mike Sass is an enchantment creature for Born of the Gods, and it hits all the notes right. The requisite starfield for enchantment creatures is well done, and this eagle taking off gets the sublime and threat just right.
This piece by Josu Hernaiz is my favorite composition for an Assassin token. It’s balanced like a classical painting, with the dead body in the peaceful repose of many a Renaissance rendered corpse. It’s got that serenity, jarring in a murder scene, which is disturbed by the assassin’s gaze at some off-panel threat.
There’s only one of these, a dramatic composition by Lars Grant-West to accompany Pongify for its reprint in Commander 2014. One of the few removal spells in blue, Pongify desperately needed its associated token.
This composition, with the ape leaping either at an enemy or from the chains of its former existence (or both), is incredibly striking.
The living Sculpture’s pose evokes classical forms while also looking like a freshly awakened being trying to figure out what it is. It’s a beautiful combination of stillness and motion throughout the composition.
It’s unfortunate that this art isn’t used on regular blue drakes, because I can’t imagine it’ll ever see play. This is what I want from my dragons and dragonish beasts. It’s the kind of post-Tolkien art that makes me want to believe. I’ve never seen this token in person and am desperate to do so.
Printed in Modern Masters along with a reprint of the always tempting but forever disappointing Skeletal Vampire, this Bat token is my favorite comics-style creature in all Tokenlandia. Artist Wayne Reynolds calls to mind the horror comics of the 50s in this menacing creature, perhaps far scarier than a 1/1 should be?
The art from Theros ranges in tone, but my favorite pieces highlight bleak ruination like this Harpy token from Nils Hamm. This creature, descending from clouds (smoke?), has the feels.
There’s a lot of competition here because there are many great Goblin tokens, but my vote is for this one by Svetlin Velinov. This token, grinning with malice in the blue shadows, is Velinov’s best piece of Magic art, which is saying something!
The newest copy of Copy for Battle for Baldur’s Gate is just awesome. The creepy copy with the knowing expression in the foreground looks back at the stunned original in the background. It’s a tremendous piece from Kai Carpenter.
It can’t be easy as a Citizen in the Magic universes. At least Warriors and Soldiers have weapons and a role to give them meaning in the madness. Although most Citizen tokens are kind of happy, this dramatic composition by Michael Phillippe has my vote.
The billowing red cloak in the barren landscape, the pose of the figure, leaning against the wind to the side of the seemingly unbalanced composition… The coup-de-grâce is the hand holding the hood down against the cold.
At all levels of the game from Limited to Constructed, 60-card to Commander, token strategies are tried and true ways of winning. Here are a few hallmarks.
Decks that generate lots of token creatures, often in Selesnya () colors, are often a great way to win. These decks are usually in that narrow space between aggro and midrange.
They aren’t quite as fast as, say, Red Deck Wins, but the tokens can gum up the board and keep you alive until your more punishing tokens synergies get moving. These decks are a lot faster than the non-aggro decks and can generate swift beatdown wins.
Although aristocrats-style sac decks can sacrifice creatures that are cards, they often need to recur, like Cauldron Familiar to keep the engine humming. Tokens can provide a deeper well of sacrifice fodder. Something as simple as a Raise the Alarm makes two bodies for one card. That can easily accelerate with other more efficient token generators.
Izzet () colors often have access to cards that make tokens in response to spells being cast, including stalwarts Young Pyromancer and Saheeli, Sublime Artificer. White decks have cards that make tokens when enchantments are cast, like Hallowed Haunting. Green gives access to cards that can multiply these effects, like Doubling Season.
The ability to generate tokens while doing other game actions is powerful. Izzet wants to cantrip the night away in most decks, and it’s playing on easy mode if it can generate a bunch of tokens along the way.
Local game stores and online Magic retailers that sell individual cards often have tokens for sale, either individually or in batches. There are also lots of retailers that ship out their custom tokens with orders, and there are specific places you can go to order (or even design!) custom tokens.
Yes, but they don’t stay there. A token creature that dies or a token artifact that’s destroyed counts as “hitting the graveyard,” but the token ceases to exist once that zone change takes place.
Yes, if they’re creatures.
Some tokens are creatures with haste, like those made by Sokenzan, Crucible of Defiance, so those don’t have summoning sickness. Artifact or enchantment tokens, unless they’re also creatures, don’t have summoning sickness. You can crack a Food or Clue token right away.
Yes, tokens are permanents.
Creature tokens count as creatures. Other types count as whatever their type line indicates.
No. A token is a representation of a game entity that doesn’t have to be represented by the token cardboard. You could use a die, a piece of paper, or a potato chip. The token is simply a convenient reminder of what the entity is.
Yes. Creating a token triggers ETB effects that are relevant.
Yes, and they count as hitting the graveyard before they cease to exist.
Do Tokens Die When Exiled?
No. This is a tough one to grok because when you Brutal Cathar a token creature it leaves play entirely. That’s because tokens cease to exist when they change game zones. But hat’s not a death trigger.
Since exile is a zone, one would think that this would trigger a card like Stonebinder’s Familiar, but all cards that trigger off other things moving to exile trigger off a card being exiled. A token is not a card.
Yes. The person who controls the spell or permanent that creates a token is the owner of that token.
Can You Copy Tokens?
Yes. For example, Altered Ego can come into play as a copy of any token creature, just maybe with some extra +1/+1s.
Some tokens have color, and some don’t. The color of a token is specified in the spell or effect or ability that creates the token, but it’s otherwise colorless.
They can be. Some tokens are expensive and rare. Many tokens have a smaller print run of unclear size, so they can be priced to fit the demand. Tokens from promo sets or league rewards also tend to be more expensive. Many tokens are widely available and aren’t worth much, if anything at all.
The most expensive token is the Lunar New Year promo Treasure token, which is currently priced at more than a hundred dollars. Promo tokens and player reward tokens generally tend to be worth more because of their rarity. Other examples include the 2015 League Monk token and the 2003 Magic player rewards Sliver.
There are only about a dozen tokens worth more than 10$ right now. There are another 70 or so that are worth more than 3$. With 540 different tokens, some of which with multiple different arts, that means that most tokens probably don’t meet the threshold to sell.
Harpy (Theros) | Illustration by Nils Hamm
Tokens are sometimes ignored game pieces. They’re what you toss aside when you crack a draft booster. There’s some great art on these, and I wanted to show a little love to the people who make them and enrich the visual environment of our favorite game!
What are your favorite tokens in Magic? Do you have any special or custom tokens? Let me know in the comments below or over on the Draftsim Twitter.
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