By John McCurdy
Many planeswalkers’ origin stories share a common thread: a particular image jumped out and really grabbed you. This card just looks cool. Badass. Beautiful.
For the old heads out there, perhaps it was Melissa Benson’s original Shivan Dragon, eyeing you from a lofty height and threatening a blast of firebreath. Or maybe it was Douglas Shuler’s majestic Serra Angel, a clear depiction of the might of the heavenly forces of the “good” side.
For me, it was Steve Luke’s Dirtwater Wraith. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what caught juvenile John’s eye with this one, in all his wannabe-Predator glory. Those raking claws, the sense of motion and a torso ripped straight from the Conan films...yep, this common from Mirage slunk through the swamps and stole my heart faster than you can say “overcosted, sometimes-evasive Shade.”
If you’ve been introduced to the game more recently, it could be any number of the outstanding pieces of art that are featured in Magic these days. While not every card’s image sings to everyone, each is someone’s favorite, and we all have the ones that we hold in high esteem.
And so, in the spirit of celebrating the aesthetics of our beloved game - as well as giving credit to the many supremely talented artists who work on Magic art - I’ve put together a totally unofficial and amateur “power ranking” of Magic’s current stable of artists. A few notes before I begin, as I hope my readers will take this all in the right context:
I’m selecting from artists who have done card art for recent sets - call it the past two years. Even a strictly-for-fun, silly exercise like this because massively difficult if you reach way back into Magic’s past. So no, you will not see Quinton Hoover, Rebecca Guay, rk post or the great Christopher Rush on this list. I’d have to do an entirely separate list for the original generation of Magic artists.
I have exactly zero formal training in art or art appreciation. I know a little bit about graphic design, and that’s as close as I come to being a “qualified critic.” This is one fanboy praising his favorites for reasons only his subconscious knows, but I 100% expect and hope that readers will leap to their keyboards to point out the brilliance of their own favorites. More for me to feast my eyes upon!
I don’t want to dive into the #paytheartists movement with this post, but I will mention it here because, in my estimation, the situation for artists at Magic Fests is unacceptable. I encourage you to look into this more and do your own research and evaluation, but I feel that appearances can and should be a good way for artists to supplement their income, and the terms and requirements for artists at Magic Fests currently seem unfair and considerably worse than they have been in the past.
Anyways, on to what you’ve all been waiting for: the rankings!
5. Chris Rahn
If there’s one thing that sticks out about Rahn’s all-around fantastic work, it’s his mastery of light and shadow. Take a look at Evolutionary Leap from Magic Origins or, more recently, Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice from Guilds of Ravnica, and you can see how incredibly perfectly he manages to align his art with the overall flavor of the card.
He’s well-known for his exceptional work on the full cycle of Swords from the Mirrodin and Scars of Mirrodin blocks; he even did the HasCon exclusive Sword of Dungeons & Dragons. And when presented with the unenviable task of giving new art to the much-beloved Eternal Witness (for which the original art by Terese Nielsen is absolutely classic), he knocked it out of the park with his rendition for Ultimate Masters.
My personal favorites of his include Lord of the Void from Gatecrash and Savage Knuckleblade from Khans of Tarkir - both are ferocious, intimidating creatures that I feel a sense of pride in unleashing on opponents. Other highlights include Ashen Rider from Theros (in my mind a perfect white/black image, angelic yet unforgiving); Jenara, Asura of War from Alara Reborn (regal and imposing as they come); and Marwyn, the Nurturer from Magic 2019 (astounding in how well it conveys emotion).
Also, this is the man responsible for getting bananas in our game (Tasigur, the Golden Fang from Fate Reforged). That fact along merits a spot on the list, don’t you think?
One thing you see in many of Swanland’s pieces is the use of thin tendrils of light, which convey motion and a sense of force expertly. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is his iconic Wurmcoil Engine from Scars of Mirrodin; fitting that such a powerful card has such striking art. Other places to catch his mastery of this technique are Vapor Snag from New Phyrexia, Staggershock from Rise of the Eldrazi and Lightning Helix from Modern Masters and Iconic Masters.
Interestingly, like Rahn, he’s also been trusted with reimagining some heavy hitters from Magic’s past - and no surprise, he too did a fantastic job. I personally like his Bloodbraid Elf from Eternal Masters better than either of the past renditions, and his Mana Drain for Iconic Masters is superb (if lacking in strange crustacean-like creatures). Then, there’s his Vampiric Tutor, again from Iconic Masters - another absolute perfect fit to flavor.
For me, his Sagu Mauler from Khans of Tarkir, Vengevine from Rise of the Eldrazi and Vampire Nocturnus from Magic 2013 are major winners. It’s the primal, savage nature of the first two that really sold me, while the Nocturnus is just oozing sinister power.
Daarken is another master of light and dark, but before you paint (no pun intended) him into a corner, take a look at his full portfolio and see just how versatile he is. Some pieces, like the classic Birthing Pod from New Phyrexia, use a single emanation of bright light to draw the eye, while others (Sparktongue Dragon from Magic 2019 and Keranos, God of Storms from Journey Into Nyx) literally send sparks crackling around the frame.
Still others use light more subtly, casting a glare or pall across the subject - see Prescient Chimera from Theros, Bloodghast from Zendikar and Scarland Thrinax from Conflux. My favorites of his use a combination of all of the above - check out Bloodhusk Ritualist from Worldwake, Dream Eater from Guilds of Ravnica and the one and only Hoody B (Hooded Brawler from Amonkhet).
And if that’s not enough variety for you, there’s also some awesome figurative work that shows Daarken’s ability to capture emotion with portrayals of humanoid faces. The crazed, bloodthirsty look on the face of the individual on Traitorous Instinct from Return to Ravnica strikes fear into the heart, and the rakshasa on Secret Plans from Khans of Tarkir clearly has a plot up his sleeve.
Finally, if you need one more reason to be a fan: this is the guy who gave us the Good Boy Rider (Ledev Champion from Guilds of Ravnica). If you don’t want to boop that snoot, I frankly don’t think we can be friends.
Part of me feels like putting Villeneuve at anything but the top spot is a disservice to my readers - if you haven’t already delved into her full portfolio (her website, linked above, and a search on Scryfall.com will let you sample for free), I insist you do. Of course, most of you probably already know just how spectacular her work is.
We’ll start with the obvious: Villeneuve is primarily a figurative artist, and I firmly believe she’s the best of that variety in the biz. The humanoids - and particularly the women - she depicts are, without exception, beautiful. There’s a reason a print of her Scrapper Champion from Aether Revolt hangs on my bedroom wall; it is an absolutely gorgeous portrayal of a strong, fierce woman, and that’s something we can all use more of in our lives.
Other breathtaking female portrayals from her works include a quintet of planeswalkers: Chandra, Torch of Defiance from Kaladesh; Vraska, Golgari Queen from Guilds of Ravnica; Narset Transcendent from Dragons of Tarkir; Vivien of the Arkbow from the Magic 2019 pre-con decks; and Jaya Ballard from Dominaria. Of these, Chandra, Narset and Vivien are personal favorites, with looks of determination on their faces that speaks to the characters’ might and will - but you really can’t go wrong.
Of course, that’s not to say that her males, gender-neutral humanoids and non-humanoids aren’t fantastic, too. I love Graceblade Artisan from Dragons of Tarkir, the Warrior Token from Amonkhet and Silvergill Adept from Rivals of Ixalan. The first two stare with steely resolve that you’d expect from individuals of their professions, while the Adept brilliantly suits the flavor of Ixalan and conveys one of its functions - the merfolk seems ready to pluck a secret from the depths, just as you’re about to draw a card off the top of your deck after casting it!
Obviously, I could carry on and gush over Villeneuve’s art forever, but I’ll spare you and only mention one more strength of her work: color. Brilliant, glowing hues have her images lingering in your mind long after you’ve looked away. But why would you, considering every second poring over them is awesome?
1. Seb McKinnon
If someone’s going to get the nod over Villeneuve on this list, it’s McKinnon. His work has been getting more and more praise recently, and it is beyond well-earned. Let’s just say that there’s one more piece of Magic art on my walls at home besides the aforementioned Scrapper Champion. It’s the imposing Archfiend of Ifnir from Amonkhet, and it greets me each time I walk through the hallway.
Can you guess who did it?
McKinnon’s evocative and enchanting work is so textured and detailed that you’d be excused for thinking he works primarily traditionally - and while he has for some cards, it ends up he’s primarily digital, like many fantasy artists these days. Lots of his pieces have a glorious smoky quality to them, as though charcoal was one of the mediums, and it makes for truly incredible, haunting artwork.
Look at his outstanding Pale Rider of Trostad from Shadows Over Innistrad and tell me you aren’t severely spooked - but also entranced. Or how about his Soulflayer from Fate Reforged? Clearly something unnatural and evil, yet spectacular all the same. His Rite of Belzenlok from Dominaria and its corresponding Cleric and Demon tokens are more of the same exemplary work - and notice how the Cleric faces left, offering himself up to the Demon, who looks right expectantly?
Debt to the Deathless from Gatecrash and Rite of the Serpent from Khans of Tarkir should be noted as some of the most visceral and gloom-infused works to ever grace a Magic card. But don’t go thinking McKinnon is all blacks and greys - his Vengeful Rebirth for Ultimate Masters has brilliant, vibrant color that fits the card incredibly well.
Want one more before you go? How about his Cuombajj Witches, currently only on the Magic Online Promo version of the card but begging for a paper release. Besides being an irresistibly beautiful image, the way it harkens to the original Kaja Foglio art - one light-skinned witch, one dark-skinned witch, the daggers poised to stab their hands right where the originals bore bright red gems - shows how dedicated the artist is to his craft.
And there you have it folks - a completely subjective and informed list, but hopefully a source of inspiration and a fitting tribute to five masterful visual artists! Make your own ranking and share back on our Facebook page to start the discussion!