Magic The Gathering: Looking Back at 25 Years of Awesome Card Art

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Who could have guessed nearly a quarter century back that a bunch of nerds playing a collectible card game version of D&D with their friends would turn into a worldwide phenomenon?

Between dozens of card sets in the intervening years, a relentless tide of online versions, and people literally making their careers playing at a pro level, Magic: The Gathering has come a long way since releasing at Gen Con all those years ago.

While the game mechanics (and constant quest for better decks) keep players coming back, it's unquestionably the art that most defines Magic. There have been thousands of cards to hit booster packs and pre-made decks across the years, featuring some of the best fantasy art talent in the gaming realm.

We're going to take a look back at the most iconic cards, from the original Alpha release way back in '93 all the way up to the Rivals Of Ixalan set in 2018. Get ready for a whirlwind tour of Magic history!

Note that in some cases these cards have seen multiple releases across sets and with different artists, so you may see a different listing on each slide than what you expect.

Chaos Confetti

  • Set: Unglued
  • Artist: Mark Tedin

While most people think of Magic as something serious (or at least serious-leaning), there have been more than a few silly sets released just for kicks.

There are a ton of Unglued cards that are worth mentioning for their outlandish designs and artwork. The 99/99 Big Furry Monster comes to mind, which required you to play two halves of a giant card and cost 15 black mana.

Chaos Confetti is the one that always sticks with me, though, as it's the only card that you have to actively destroy in the real world to play! I have to wonder how many people have actually followed the directions on the card during an Unglued game?

Unholy Strength

  • Set: Alpha
  • Artist: Douglas Shuler

For most people who don't regularly play the game, this will always be the card most associated with Magic history.

There have been many different iterations of this black creature pumper over the years, starting with the controversial flaming pentagram edition that had parents and religious leaders up in arms in the midst of the ludicrous Satanic Panic era (back when D&D was renaming devils to Baatezu and demons to Tanar'ri).

Clearly, Wizards Of The Coast decided to go a drastically different direction in later versions, although there's always some little nods to the original in the art.

Elder Dragon Legends

  • Set: Legends
  • Artist: Edward Beard, Jr.

These early attempts at the elder dragons that would define a segment of the Magic mythos were highly sought after, but frankly the art was kind of weird and often didn't scream "giant dragon god being" to me.

They were definitely powerhouses of special abilities at the time, although each required a continuous spending of mana each turn to avoid early death. The various dragon legends of each plane would get a big makeover, both in mechanics and art style, down the line in future sets.

Invasion Dragon Legends

  • Set: Invasion
  • Artist: Carl Critchlow and others

Years after the Legends set, we finally got a new crop of dragon legends with slick new art and a revamped style. Each dragon switched to 6/6 from 7/7 and ditched the constant upkeep, but retained extremely powerful abilities if used properly.

Even though you can't have more than one in play at a time, you could build whole decks around these concepts. Rith, The Awakener was always my go-to multicolor deck dragon, resulting in an absurd army of 50+ 1/1 saprolings in play at the end of a match that grew exponentially each turn.

The dragon legends didn't see the end of their saga here, though, with new versions arriving in the Kamigawa, Planar Chaos, and Fate Reforged sets.

Dakkon Blackblade

  • Set: Legends
  • Artist: Richard Kane Ferguson

Another early card that will always be iconic, you can tell this is Richard Kane Ferguson's hazy watercolor style with just a brief glance.

Dakkon comes from a time when multicolored cards were just being introduced, and they went hog wild here with the concept, increasing his power and toughness as you control more lands, taking the idea of the landscape as magical power to a new level.

Black Lotus

  • Set: Alpha
  • Artist: Christopher Rush

How could something so simple end up being so rare and desired, constantly fetching silly prices online? Everyone knows Black Lotus, and this card essentially is Magic: The Gathering, exemplifying the collectible aspect. For those who don't care for the low-key art, a much more lush (and perhaps long-overdue) version arrived back in 2012.

Giant Growth

  • Set: Masters 25
  • Artist: Matt Capoter

Easily the most iconic green card and one that really exemplifies what a forest deck is all about, Giant Growth has gone through several distinct iterations. It began as a rat (without much sense of scale) gnawing on bones, then morphed into a giant rat chasing a snake, and then eventually landed on this memorable image of a druid ensuring no one on the battlefield overlooks that roaring bear!

Crush Of Wurms

  • Set: Judgment
  • Artist: Christopher Moeller

The Judgment/Torment sets saw some amazing card combos arrive, including some big bad entries with massive mana costs. This board-clearing green behemoth is essentially a late-game win card, flooding your side of the battle field with giant 6/6 creatures. Since it's possible to play it again with Flashback just a turn or two later, you can easily get insane board control very quickly.

Sengir Vampire

  • Set: Torment
  • Artist: Kev Walker

While Judgment focused on white cards, Torment was all about the evil swamp creatures, including a host of vampires and the returning (and reigning) champ, Sengir. This bloody vamp with his shock of pulled-back hair and ancient finery will always be burned into my memory.

If you recall this from a different time period, that's because good Sengir has been around a long time, showing up in more than a dozen sets across Magic history.

Uncle Istvan

  • Set: Time Spiral
  • Artist: Daniel Gelon

Old Uncle Istvan was the bane of my existence when my older brother got me into Magic, and I hadn't mastered the strategies yet beyond "summon a big thing and attack."

The concepts of creature removal with an instant kill spell or nullifying him with an enchantment weren't quite in my brain yet, so this seemingly weak creature was incredibly vexing when it just wouldn't ever die!

Treacherous Urge

  • Set: Planar Chaos
  • Artist: Steven Belledin

I defy you to find a more visually stunning black card in Magic history! The marionette sawing himself in half -- rather than just cutting his strings -- is an image you can't ever get out of your head. It's not often black cards screw with an opponent like blue ones, either, and Treacherous Urge fills that niche nicely.

Cemetery Reaper

  • Set: Magic 2012
  • Artist: Dave Allsop

Talk about a crazy vision of a zombie! Those bulging muscles breaking free of the weak skin above, the yellow bug eyes, and a giant worm tongue that brings to mind something like the mohrg from D&D all combine for one hell of a card!

Serra Angel

  • Set: 8th Edition
  • Artist: Mark Zug

While Pacify is probably the most iconic white card in terms of representing the color's intentions, Serra Angel will always remain the most well-known plains-based creature. Eighth edition saw updated versions of many classic cards, and Serra Angel was no exception.

The original version was basically just a brunette in a corset with a sad sword, but subsequent versions got much more war-focused, including this one here and the grand, epic version gracing the first image of this slideshow (that wouldn't look out of place in a Heroes Of Might And Magic army).

Leviathan

  • Set: Time Spiral
  • Artist: Mark Tedin

Forget counterspell, this is the blue card that I'll never forget! If you let your blue opponent get this card, you messed up pretty bad, and it's pretty much all over.

It doesn't even really matter that your opponent has to sacrifice a bunch of islands every turn, because a 10/10 with trample is getting through one way or another. Of course, there are plenty of ways to mess this strategy up with cheap instants, but if you aren't building your deck around creature control, Leviathan can be unstoppable.

Arcanis the Omnipotent

  • Set: 10th Edition
  • Artist: Justin Sweet

Combining the best of blue's ability to screw with opponents or alter the battlefield with a decent creature, Arcanis is an iconic addition to the island lineup. Those eyes set back in a blackened hood always remind me of Vivi (or any Final Fantasy black mage), and there's just something about Arcanis' presence, with his wildly fluctuating lines of magic that draw the eyes across this killer card.

Shivan Dragon

  • Set: Alpha
  • Artist: Melissa Benson

When Magic was just getting going, this was the baddest red creature on the block. A 5/5 flying you could easily pump every turn to absurd levels? He needed to be in any deck that wasn't all just straight damage. Sadly, later editions didn't' really capture the same feel on the art front, which strongly brought to mind the classic animated film The Flight of Dragons.

Blistering Barrier

  • Set: Mirage
  • Artist: David Ho

Magic features an incredibly wide range of art, some of which goes in a very abstract direction. That is definitely the case with this odd, dreamlike card, where some sort of Giger-esque flaming human/alien hybrid lives in a mouth of lava for some reason? And it's a wall somehow? I don't know what I'm looking at, but I know I don't want to run through it to attack the guy on the other side.

Mudbutton Torchrunner

  • Set: Lorwyn
  • Artist: Steve Ellis

There are numerous fantastic goblins and boggarts from the Lorwyn/Morningtide sets, all based on self-destruction mechanics in various ways (sometimes when hurled at an enemy by a giant).

Mudbutton Torchrunner always stands out for me, with its hilarious image of a goblin wearing a jar of pitch on his head, running full speed ahead, torch at the ready, preparing to hurl himself into harm's way!

Planeswalkers (Liliana Vess)

  • Set: Lorwyn
  • Artist: Aleksi Briclot

There was a rather unexpected change-up in the game when the Planeswalkers themselves appeared as cards. Of course they arrived with major changes in the typical card structure since these mighty beings don't behave in the same way as your average summoned creature.

It was a welcome sight to get to witness mighty spellslingers like Jace, Nicol Bolas, Liliana, Chandra, and more, all illustrated in a card that could actually be played in a match.

Phyrexian Snowcrusher

  • Set: Cold Snap
  • Artist: Dave Allsop

Whether artifact creature or pure black evil, the Phyrexians have a long and storied history across Magic. Picking a single "best" one is an exercise in futility, but for craziest card presence, I had to pick the Snowcrusher, who melds bizarre technology with clearly malign spellcraft into a pretty terrifying package.

The Ur-Dragon

  • Set: Commander 2017
  • Artist: Jaime Jones

He's a costly beast, but a flying 10/10 with all sorts of battlefield abilities is always worth the price of admission! This card is notable for the crazy sense of scale it features by showing the other dragons in the background and foreground. It is beyond clear that The Ur-Dragon is not a small creature to be trifled with by fledgling planeswalkers!

Vraska's Scorn

  • Set: Rivals Of Ixalan
  • Artist: James Ryman

That crazy mass of writhing, colorful tendrils is rather mesmerizing to look at, and I suspect that's the point. Those slithering snakes are echoed in more obvious black mana form by the Vraska, Scheming Gorgon card also found in this latest set in the Magic franchise.

Whew, we just hurtled through 25 years of history across Wizard Of The Coast's flagship CCG, and I suspect we did it in record time! With any luck, Magic will still be going strong in another 25 years (although we'll probably all be playing solely digitally at that point).

What was your favorite Magic The Gathering set, and did we miss any cards with killer artwork that you closely associate with the game? Let us know what cards you think have the best artwork in the comments section below!

Published Mar. 5th 2018

Featured Contributor

Ty splits his time between writing horror fiction and writing about video games. After 25 years of gaming, Ty can firmly say that gaming peaked with Planescape Torment, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have a soft spot for games like Baldur's Gate, Fallout: New Vegas, Bioshock Infinite, and Horizon: Zero Dawn. He has previously written for GamerU and MetalUnderground. He also writes for PortalMonkey covering gaming laptops and peripherals.

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