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.
4: Teferi's Protection by Kieran Yanner
Secret Lair: Extra Life 2020
Teferi's Protection was an instant staple the minute it was previewed. Capitalizing on what white does best, TP lives up to the Protection part of its name. Nearly better than hexproof and indestructible combined, TP was conceived as a card to represent the epic moment in MTG lore when Teferi phased all of Zhalfir out of existence to protect it from a Phyrexian invasion, Such an epic event deserved an epic card to be used on epic scales. And despite the fact that TP gives you protection from everything, Kieran Yanner takes my heartstrings and just plays them like a fiddle with his new art for the best white card ever printed. The lore and in-game function of TP operate on grand scales, but this intimate moment with a father and daughter visibly forces us to reconsider what else Teferi protects. We've known and loved Teferi for 20 years as the most powerful time wizard in the multiverse. Yanner's piece shows us for the first time our beloved hero as father, a hero to his only daughter, Niambi. The piece immediately resonates, especially when you contrast it with what Teferi's Protection was originally supposed to represent. Yanner subverts our expectations on what protection means, and once you see the joyful, wholesome smile on Niambi's face, it is clear in an instant that Teferi would go to any length in his considerable power to protect and defend her. We don't see many parent-child relationships in MTG art; off the top of my head, I can only think of Cathartic Reunion from Kaladesh, and Maternal Witness from Khans of Tarkir as examples. Yanner's rendition of Teferi's Protection gives us another solid entry in that small club. Teferi and Niambi's playtime is heartwarming, affectionate, and challenges the viewer to rethink their views of protection. The Secret Lair edition of TP also contends for the best marriage of art and flavor text in all of MTG, adding to the artistic master class we see on this card.
"I've walked a hundred worlds, but you are my universe."
I'm not crying; you're crying.
3: Exploration by Mark Poole
If you put a lotus in the art, MTG players are going to flock to the card. The full art Exploration from Double Masters did not disappoint. What struck me the most about this card is that it is so stylistically different from most everything else that came out this year. The purple and pink lotuses in the center captivate and draw your attention, but once you start to explore the world around the lotuses, you'll find calm serenity in the river and its gentle ripples, see the unwavering resistance of the rocks, feel the gentle flowing of grass in a breeze, and taste the enticing allure of a forest beyond the lotus that beckons you and promises adventure. The brush strokes in the river, rocks, and surrounding vegetation remind me of Monet's "Water Lilies", and I could not be more excited to see an homage to Monet in MTG art. The marriage of a truly classic impressionist style and the strikingly contrasted modern style of the central lotuses works beautifully in execution. The whole piece displays Poole's mastery of his craft and gives us a showcase of Poole's artistic evolution from Alpha to now. In an age where MTG art is largely homogenized to reinforce a theme or aura of the story setting, we rarely see highly unique and distinct styles outside of Seb McKinnon nowadays. Mark Poole's Exploration is a neon sign amongst a landscape of black and white. Everything about this piece draws your attention, keeps your eyes appeased, and fills you with the desire to do exactly what the card says: explore it.
2: Lotus Cobra by Bastien Grivet
Before September, I'd never heard of Bastien Grivet. By the time preview season was over, I could not stop gawking at this downright entrancing piece that he'd created for Lotus Cobra. MTG has not seen an artist with a style this distinct and unique since Seb first graced us with his art back in 2012. No MTG artist has been as vivacious, outlandish, and unabashedly bright as Bastien since the Foglios back in MTG's early days. Bastien's Lotus Cobra is a fever dream of color and flowers. Like Mark Poole's Exploration, this Lotus Cobra immediately distinguishes itself not only from every other promo or alt art card in the set, but from every other card printed this year. I love seeing stuff that's totally out of left field, and this was a home run. I have to be honest: I have literally no idea what's going on in this piece or what story Bastien is telling here. All I know is that I am positively ensorcelled with it. You can see a mangificent spectrum of colors with this piece, indicative of the five colors of mana you can get if your Lotus Cobra sticks around. The abundance of lotuses reflects how bountiful our snake friend can be for you during the game. I think my favorite detail is the tiniest of grins on the cobra, giving it a warm and welcoming aura. While some cultures and traditions cast the snake as a liar and trickster, Bastien's work reminds me that snakes also represent healing (think of the caduceus!), eternity, transformation, and fertility. This cobra offers plenty to those who seek its gifts, and his garden is teeming with life in every color you could want. Lotus Cobra is entrancing and an absolutely brilliant opening salvo from newcomer Bastien Grivet. If this piece is indicative of things to come, Bastien has a bright future (both literally and figuratively) in MTG art. I bought a print of this art to hang in my home because I love it so much, and I could not be happier to have a future where I can look forward to more Bastien Grivet art in MTG.
1: Demonic Tutor by Anna Steinbauer
Judge Gift Cards 2020
I'm generally a pretty positive and optimistic person. While I can academically appreciate the dark, spooky, and macabre, I don't really have a taste for it. I like bright and vivacious pieces that are full of emotion. For something spooky to truly catch my eye, it needs to be something really special with an amazing story. Anna Steinbauer's downright haunting art for Demonic Tutor ticks every box, and has maintained my attention for the whole of 2020. When I started putting together this list, I immediately wrote down three line items in this exact order.
1: Demonic Tutor by Anna Steinbauer
2: Several f***ing country miles
3: Lotus Cobra by Bastien Grivet
The Judge Promo DT is hands-down the best art we got in MTG this year, and for my money it's not even particularly close. I've been obsessed with Steinbauer's DT since January and every other art I've looked at failed to measure up to this grim and tragic masterpiece. Let's start with just the tiny details. We've got a rocking unicorn shown only in silhouette in the background with its horn broken in half. The teddy bear in the bottom right is decapitated with stuffing laying about the floor. The doll's pitch black eyes bleed an ebony ichor with the corner of its mouth turned up in the slightest of grins. Steinbauer knows how to compose a horror scene, but what really impressed me was the bold choice to go with a child as the student. In every other DT art that featured a student, they've always been adults. Children being seduced or possessed by demons is nothing new in horror at large; we've seen it famously in The Exorcist and The Omen. This is new territory for MTG art, and a bold choice to amplify the sheer terror of the piece. The child is dressed exactly like her demon porcelain doll, even down to the hairstyle, illustrating a complete submission to the will of the demon. The child's face seems genuinely happy and at peace, starkly contrasting with sinister scowl of the doll, and yet again amplifying the horror because either the child is complicit in the doll's evil or (even more chilling) the child does not know what horror she has wrought by inviting this being into her life. Of course the doll stirs up images of Annabelle or Chucky (or Slappy if you grew up with Goosebumps!), but instead of a murderous, killing machine doll, Steinbauer gave us a demon who hides in plain sight and employs this gullible child to do its bidding while it watches gleefully from the shadows. In cruel inversion of roles, the doll is the one pulling the strings with a willing follower in tow. What still haunts me to this very day is the flavor text paired with this card that gives the piece a grim life of its own.
"Mama says it's my imagination, but I know you'd never lie to me."
When I look at the little girl's face I can hear her say that line to the doll, and it wrecks me every time. We have a protagonist who knows not what she's done or the lines she is now destined to cross with her doll's help. Steinbauer deserves every last heap of praise for constructing this eerie and tragic piece. No other DT art comes close to being this scary, and you'd be hard pressed to find a card from 2020 more satisfying, more visceral, and more captivating than Anna Steinbauer's Demonic Tutor.
And with that, Into the 99's year-end review of 2020 comes to its conclusion! Did I miss your favorite art piece this year? Tell me what card you think challenges Demonic Tutor for the top slot this year, or what piece I included that is entirely ludicrous. I'm @DanteInformal on Twitter/Instagram, and you can talk to the rest of the crew on the same platforms @IntoThe99! Cheers to you all! Have a safe and happy New Years' Eve, and let's hope for some more amazing content in 2021 from our favorite MTG artists!