Updated: Dec 31, 2020
The nightmare of 2020 is thankfully almost over. Magic was a high point for nearly all of us this year, and one of the best things we got this year was the proliferation of alternate and full art cards. My favorite part of the preview seasons in 2020 was simply looking through the new pieces of art and marveling at some truly stunning creations. To close out 2020, I'm going to review the best of MTG art that we got this year. Take a trip down memory lane with me, and let's finish 2020 with a tribute to the beauty that some truly talented artists birthed into the world this year.
Before we go too far, I'd like to thank my girlfriend and wonderful artist/cosplayer @mj_cosplay_ for her artistic insights as I was putting this piece together.
There was a cornucopia of great pieces I considered for this article, but I couldn't possibly include them all. So here are a way too many pieces I loved that didn't quite make the cut! In no particular order: Plains by Adam Paquette, Lightning Greaves by Mark Zug, Cultivate by Billy Christian, Fire Prophecy by Kieran Yanner, the full art triomes by Robbie Trevino, Alchemist's Gift by Cristi Balanescu, Zirda the Dawnwaker by Jesper Ejsing, Baleful Strix by Allen Douglas, Anticipate by Kieran Yanner, Zulaport Cutthroat by Daniel Lieske, Negate by Billy Christian, Peer Into the Abyss by Izzy, Trynn, Champion of Freedom by Jesper Ejsing, Felidar Retreat by Tyler Smith, Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni by JungShan, Captain Sisay by Magali Villeneuve, Meren of Clan Nel-Toth by Cynthia Sheppard, Inkmoth Nexus by Joshua Howard, and Birds of Paradise by Ovidio Cartagena.
Tangled Florahedron by Randy Vargas
This is far and above the most adorable piece of art that came out of Magic this year. Tangled Florahedron is the perfect representation of Zendikar Rising's theme of nature reclaiming what was lost. Non-functional hedrons litter the landscape of Zendikar in a post-Eldrazi world, and I love the idea of Zendikar's roil absorbing and integrating these artifacts into the ever-shifting landscape. Tangled Vale, the reverse face of Tangled Florahedron, gives us the first half of this story with littered hedrons, resulting in a more potent and meaningful story for our Tangled Florahedron element on the front face. The elemental creature born of Zendikar's roil is young and full of bright colors, beauty, and an innocent curiosity for the natural world. The resiliency of nature is the central focus of this piece, and Randy Vargas absolutely nailed it.
10: Ruinous Ultimatum by Chase Stone
Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths
I'm a big fan of first-person perspective in MTG art. Occasionally breaking the fourth wall gives us a window into the fantasy worlds we love. We got a few of them this year in Spikefield Hazard and Village Rites, but the absolute best of the bunch this year was Ruinous Ultimatum by Chase Stone. Village Rites and Spikefield Hazard give us the view of someone in imminent danger, but Ruinous Ultimatum shows us the last sight of a dying soldier. The sky is a sickly green and riddled with arrows coming straight at you. The battlefield is littered with bodies that are dead or dying. The subject of this painting has only moments to live, and this instilled such a sense of dread and foreboding when I first saw this piece. When you resolve Ruinous Ultimatum your opponents' lives are over in short order, and the art of this card seamlessly bridges the gap between form and function to deliver a cohesive experience of ruin and devastation both in-game and in the visual. This art is a true match to the flavor of the card combined with that haunting first-person perspective.
9: Essence Scatter by Seb McKinnon
Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths
Putting Seb's art on this list seems almost seems unfair to every other artist because everything Seb creates is just so damn good. He's had plenty of outstanding pieces this year (that Ikoria Mythos cycle was breathtaking!), but I think his Essence Scatter is easily the most underrated. Seb's cave painting motif for his six pieces in Ikoria were all gorgeous, but Essence Scatter was a cut above. Despite being a cave painting, the faeries scattering from the monster give this piece a kinetic dimension. You can almost hear the flock of faerie wings flapping as the monster dissolves. The stark contrast between the dull blacks, greys, and browns of the cave painting and the vibrant whites, blues, purples, and greens of the faeries is downright mesmerizing. Even the brilliant red of the monster's eyes convey shock and fear in a striking way. The monster is simultaneously on fire and beautifully dissolving into a sublime mist. Seb routinely delivers masterpiece after masterpiece and his Essence Scatter is no exception. You can't go wrong with any of Seb's pieces this year but this is the cream of the crop for me.
8. Island by Sam Burley
Theros: Beyond Death
Basic lands are usually the first thing that people look past when reviewing the full preview. I'm no exception to this, but when I saw Sam Burley's basic Island for Theros: Beyond Death I was blown away. Burley's Island evokes strong visual homage to classical depictions of Tartarus with chains to keep the inhabitants in line. The gargantuan chains give weight and perspective to the painting as well as adding a literal weight to the underworld of Theros. The blues, greens, and purples along with the signature Nyx starfield give us a sense of wonder and awe, despite the foreboding chains and show us beauty in a device meant to bind and restrict. It takes a lot to stand out among all the basics that are released every year, and Burley did it in spades.
7: Dig Through Time by Steve Prescott
Secret Lair: Every Dog Has Its Day
Full disclosure: I'm very much a dog person. As soon as I heard there was a doggo-themed Secret Lair I knew that I was going to buy it. What I didn't know is that I'd fall completely in love with a simple yet great concept in the art, so much that I'm planning to replace all copies of Dig Through Time in my decks with the Secret Lair version; the art is that damn good. Dig Through Time is a powerful card rendered innocent with the simple joy of a dog digging up hidden treasures. The art perfectly represents the function of the card. What I love most about Prescott's piece is that unlike the other pieces in Every Dog Has Its Day, Dig Through Time still firmly roots itself in a fantasy world. That fantasy world is why we all fell in love with MTG in the first place and Prescott perfectly balances fantasy with a fun, fan service-y project. Hunter is digging his way under a runic circle to a glowing artifact or magical being (or whatever your imagination conjures up!) under the sand. The glowing rune shaped like a magical bone makes me laugh everytime. Prescott's bright colors and whimsical tone keep this piece optimistic and light, something that I think we all could use after the hellhole that was 2020. You can't help but root for our puppy protagonist, and I defy you to call this piece anything less than the beautiful gift that it is.
6: Thalia, Guardian of Thraben by Johannes Voss
Secret Lair: Thalia - Beyond the Helvault
I took a long break from Magic and came back in 2016. My first rare in my first pack that I opened after I came back was Thalia, Heretic Cathar and she's been a favorite character of mine ever since. Secret Lair: Thalia - Beyond the Helvault has a hilariously cumbersome name, but also some downright great work from Magali Villeneuve and Johannes Voss. This scene in this piece shows us the moment when Thalia is excommunicated from the Church during the Eldritch Moon storyline and becomes the heretic cathar I fell in love with. Thalia confronts the Lunarch Council and the Church of Avacyn with damning evidence that its leadership was consorting with the Skirsdag demon worship cult. She is angry and full of righteous rage, with bloodied pages of correspondence falling to the floor to represent Thalia's world crumbling around her. The bloodied pages also evoke parallels to Avacyn's bloodstained feathers as she butchers innocent humans she once swore to protect. If you take a look at the two pages in the top left of the painting, you'll see one page with a drawing of a Zendikar hedron and a sketch of big mama Emrakul herself in all of her tentacled glory. Notice how Thalia is the only one in this painting who's in direct sunlight; the bishops are all either in shadow or in indirect sunlight, emphasizing Thalia as the chosen guardian and bearer of truth. Voss crams so much detail into one small painting and pays homage to a crucial point in Thalia's character arc. Every piece in Thalia's Secret Lair drop was excellent, but this exceptional work by Johannes Voss was a cut above the rest.
5: Stoneforge Mystic by Dan Dos Santos
I'll be honest and start off with a potentially unpopular opinion: I don't particularly care for the original Stoneforge Mystic art from Worldwake. No shade to Mike Bierek; his piece is good, but it doesn't do much for me. When I got a glimpse of the promo version of Stoneforge for Double Masters, though? That captured my attention immediately. We have a shaman clearly in the middle of a ritual, eyes closed and head bowed in concentration. Although she's clearly exerting will, our subject's face is at peace and shows nothing but calm as she makes the magic of stoneforging look easier than effortless. She maintains her calm even as a strong wind blows directly at her, buffeting her hair and necklace. Yet, she remains steadfast. The light radiating from her tattoos matches the brightest glow from the hottest portions of molten lava she manipulates and sculpts. The light from the swords and the mystic cut through an otherwise charcoal landscape of barren stone and dismal sky. The swords' light cut through the darkness opposing them before they are even finished, showing us the power they (and in turn, their creator) possess. These swords are the outward manifestation of our mystic's inner strength, the raging tempest beneath her serene facade. We do not know why she's creating these swords, but we are certain of one thing: when our mystic opens her eyes, you do not want to be in her way. Without a single word or specific MTG story to reference, Dan Dos Santos created a masterwork of storytelling in a single piece. This is the iconic art that an iconic card deserves.