Magic: the Gathering Artwork – a Look at Some Old Favorites

One of the few things Anna Kreider and I have in common is we both find the art in Magic the Gathering rather disappointing. However, whilst Wundergeek’s complaints largely revolve around boob plates and the elves being too sexy, my gripe is the artistic shift away from the iconic art styles that defined MTG during its 90s heyday.

Before his death, Quinton Hoover, one of the artists who, perhaps more than any other with the exception of Douglas Schuler, shaped the aesthetic and implied setting of MTG, remarked that one of the reasons why he was out was that by the 00s, the art directors just didn’t want the kind of fantasy art he was known for and he couldn’t conform his style to the sort of art they did want.

The art was still pretty solid by the time I had quit regularly playing and collecting(late 1999), and not all of the stuff I’ve seen since was bad, but I’d noticed that there was definitely a shift that had started going on in Rath and Urza that struck me as being stylistic forerunner of the typical Wizards of the Coast fantasy art that you see all over the place these days. But rather than complain about the new art, I’d like to show a few of my favorite examples of the classic art.


Quinton Hoover’s clean line-art was second to none.  Even so-so cards like this one became icon parts of MTG because of Hover’s art.


Another classic Hoover common.


A card whose endless popularity has nothing to do with how good it is.

pixie queen

I promise, Hoover illustrated cards that didn’t suck, but even the ones that did, his art made them worth holding onto.

uholy strength

All censoring this card did was send us kids to the dime boxes to buy up as many of the older versions as we could when we found out we’d been cheated out of burning pentagram.


But Schuler was someone who knew that evil existed and could be vanquished by good.  Only thing that would make this better would be a Teutonic Eagle.


I also dug this Joan of Arc-ish piece; these found their way into a lot of my white decks.


Never neglect your education.


Of course, his Serra Angel is perhaps one of the most iconic images in all of MTG.


Whoa, hey, a thing is happening here!  Betcha the squeamish Pathfinder feminists aren’t happy about this lady character or the lady who illustrated her, but man, don’t you want to know more about this character whose story this card gives you a tiny window into?!  Baroh’s a mixed bag, but I do like a lot of her stuff.


Though Rebecca Guay often goes for a hazy feel in her water-colors, all of her line-work is incredibly strong and solid.


This was one of my all time favorites.  It was a mediocre card in its day and even just a couple years of power creep later rendered it beyond bad, but man, who would not want to read half a dozen short stories about this lady!?  Really, the early MTG flash fiction was a bigger selling point for me than the game itself.


7 responses to “Magic: the Gathering Artwork – a Look at Some Old Favorites

  1. Ahh, nostalgia. Remember Nevinyrral’s Disk? Shivan Dragon, Nightmare, the old goblin cards. Lots of great artwork, indeed. I didn’t hate the newer, WotC-style art, but those old pieces certainly had charm.

    • Yep, yep, yep. I’m still kinda surprised they never went ahead and made a legend card out of Pashalik Mons; I loved the flavor text for Mons’s Goblin Raiders.

      When Wizards decided to revisit the Urza storyline, my friends and used to crack about Wizards being so hard up for story ideas that they would begin basing sets on random no-ability Legends from the Legends set. “The Tobias Andrion Chronicles” became a running joke we had my 8th grade year.

      “Urza exits the planar portal to be met by a familiar face – ‘Tobias, my friend! Where have you been all these years!?'”

      • Haha…I had to look that one up. Legends from the older additions are so pathetic now because of the power creep you mentioned in your post. But then it’s odd that they’d make a legend out of a military…administrator.

      • The problem, I think, was that the first several sets of Magic were built more with thematics in mind than competitive play. Legends did a lot of stuff to try to create “parties of heroes” emphasizing certain mechanics like banding (there were a number of “all legends of x type gain banding” cards) that were not particularly favored in competitive play.

        If you built a deck entirely out of cards from Legends it would make for a hell of a fun game against similar decks made of other pre-Ice Age sets.

  2. When that game got popular I was stationed on a ship out of Yokosuka. I had nothing but partying on my mind so I poo pooed the whole thing. I remember looking down on it a bit because it wasn’t an rpg proper. I got into it later of course but I missed getting in early, missed a lot based on those cards. I have the worst timing with this stuff. Hoover is awesome, thanks for drawing him to my attention.

  3. Excellent points. The art direction from the 90s was far superior and more iconic compared to what happened to the game in the 21st century. That’s not my nostalgia talking either but just surveying and comparing the two today. I wonder if it was because not only the generation of artists changed but the tools and mediums as well, from traditional mediums to digital.

    Personally, I think that what made these earlier cards so great was how high key and bright and colorful they were, that you could clearly see what was going on in a scene. I also liked how simple the visual metaphors were, that they had a timeless or fantastical look. The frames/borders were also simpler which complemented the illustrations. The cards I see today are rather too complex and busy and way too shadowy. I’m all for atmosphere but the art direction of late misses the mark.

    • Thanks! (and sorry your comment went to spam)
      From what I’ve read, a big part of it seemed to be a move on the part of Wizards of the Coast’s art directors to try to establish a standardized look across all of their products, so that regardless of the artist, every piece had a particular “feel” that they were going for. Of course, what it’s done is create a kind of bland and samey aesthetic across a pretty large swath of fantasy – the muted color, the earthy look, and a strange ‘realist’ approach. Since that’s what the biggest fantasy publisher on the block is buying and expecting from their artists, you’ll see more artists working in that style.

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