Magic: the Gathering has been around for 20 years, and an integral part of the game's popularity has always been the art that appears on each card. Check out this greatest hits gallery of Magic art through the years.
I asked other Magic fans for their personal favorite pieces of Magic art, and picked some of my own, plus some that are iconic or perfect examples of Magic's evolving art style. Special thanks to Wizards of the Coasts' PR team and their art department for helping me track down hi-res versions of many of these works. Click any image to enlarge.
Perhaps the most iconic card in Magic history is Black Lotus (above), which today sells for $3,000 to $5,000. The original art by Christopher Rush may be instantly recognizable, but it's a bit bland. When Wizards of the Coast introduced a collection of older, powerful cards to the online version of Magic in 2012 (for a special draft format called Cube), they commissioned new art for Black Lotus. The velvety black petals and the corpses of fallen foes by Chris Rahn really does the original justice.
Damnation - Kev Walker
There are a lot of Magic cards that destroy things en masse, and a lot of ways to depict that. Damnation's sucking black void is the most unnerving to look at, though.
Bitterblossom - Rebecca Guay
This card with a seemingly subtle effect (it gives you a small flying creature each turn at the cost of 1 life point) fueled a monstrously successful faerie-themed tournament deck in its heyday. Rebecca Guay's art reminds us that Magic isn't all about massive warriors and gruesome beasts. It can be beautiful, too.
Dakkon Blackblade - Richard Kane Ferguson
Ferguson has a very distinctive style that appears to be watercolor, here depicting a prototypical bad-ass, gritty warrior.
Commander's Authority - Johannes Voss
Voss' use of light in this image is amazing.
Forest (Unhinged) - John Avon
For their "joke" sets, Unglued and Unhinged, Wizards ordered special full-card art for the basic lands. Those lands, including this one by John Avon, look so good they've become collector's items. Your EDH deck isn't truly pimped out until you have all Unhinged lands in it.
Akroma, Angel of Wrath - Chippy
One of Magic's classic creature types is the angel. They've appeared in many incarnations, some more demurely dressed than others. I like this version of Akroma both due to Chippy's use of light glowing through her wings and the determined expression on her face, which clearly says, "Just because I'm an angel doesn't mean I'm not a bad-ass."
Elspeth Tirel - Michael Komarck
Elspeth is a planeswalker, one of the most powerful beings in Magic's mythology. This is not only an example of the hyperdetailed pseudo-realism that is the de facto art style for Magic in recent years, but it also shows that Magic sometimes defies fantasy art cliches when it comes to depicting female characters.
Endless Ranks of the Dead - Ryan Yee
There are plenty of ways to depict a zombie horde, but subtly showing them pressed against the other side of a beautifully lit pane of stained glass is probably the best way. Brilliant idea brilliantly executed.
Evacuation - Franz Vohwinkel
Another example of "pseudo-realism" (by which I mean impossible things depicted realistically). Here, a wizard clears a game board of the pieces, which is exactly what the card does in the game.
Forest (Ravnica) - Stephan Martiniere
Some of the best art appears on basic lands, like this Forest from the Ravnica expansion. How do you depict a forest that's actually in a city? Martiniere pulls it off with moody, dramatic lighting and an eye for architecture.
Island - Stephan Martiniere
Another stunning basic land from Martiniere. The level of detail is mind-blowing.
Memory Jar - Donato Giancola
I love this art because it shows how amazing abstraction can be. In this case, it was necessary because the card itself does something somewhat abstract and confusing within the game (both players set their hands aside and draw new hands that they can only use until the end of the turn).
Hurloon Minotaur - Anson Maddocks
Magic art has advanced pretty far since this image was created, but for many years this was the image that Wizards used to represent Magic. I give Maddocks credit for creating an original and unique interpretation of a basic fantasy creature.
Natural Order - Terese Nielsen
Nielsen is one of my favorite Magic artists, and this card shows why.
Path to Exile (Friday Night Magic promo) - Rebecca Guay
For this promo card, Guay not only created a beautiful image, she captured both the card's flavor (it removes a creature from the game instead of killing it) and allusions to fantasy stories and folk tales.
Street Wraith - Cyril Van Der Haegen
This card was suggested to me for this list, and on closer inspection, it's quite amazing. The transition from the eerie green flames at the top to the shadowy tentacles at the bottom is perfectly done.
Baleful Strix - Nils Hamm
This biomechanical owl and the abstract scenery surrounding it are, quite simply, beautiful.
Kargan Dragonlord - Jason Chan
If you find a better shot that shows off the power and majesty of a dragon than this one, let me know. Bonus points for a dude riding the dragon and wearing a skull mask.
Lotus Cobra - Chippy
This one might look better within the context of the card itself (the green border adds necessary contrast), but it's an interesting piece of art on its own as well.
Mindshrieker - Dave Kendall
The power of a monochromatic image. I seem to have a thing for semi-abstract owls.
Walker of Secret Ways - Scott M. Fischer
Fischer's interpretation of a ninja stood out to me as soon as I saw it, and it has remained one of my favorite pieces of Magic art ever since.
Pact of Negation - Jason Chan
Chan again, showing off contrasting colors and a vivid interpretation of nothing in particular happening (the card is a counterspell that simply prevents another spell from resolving).
Sigiled Paladin - Greg Staples
More pseudo-realism. Magic didn't invent that style of fantasy art, of course (Jeff Easley is my favorite example), but Staples shows a mastery of the form here. Could anything possibly look more heroic than a gleaming knight riding a majestic lion?
Regeneration - Quinton Hoover
This early Magic card provides a nice contrast with the detailed, intricately lit works that would come later. The clear, simple lines remind me of some of the best bronze-age comic book art. George Tuska comes to mind.
Baneslayer Angel - Greg Staples
Here, Staples eschews pseudo-realism for a gorgeous, almost Impressionist angel. This card is one of the most powerful creatures in Magic, and at one time cost almost $60...while it was still in print.
Tombstalker - Aleksi Briclot
Briclot's design for this demon is incredible, but what makes this one of my favorite pieces of Magic art is the dynamic sense of movement.
Tamiyo, the Moon Sage - Eric Deschamps
There are so many little details that make this a great image of one of the strange, Asian-flavored moonfolk.
Twilight Shepherd - Jason Chan
Nearly monochromatic, but check out Chan's use of texture.
Plague Spitter - Chippy
More people requested this card than any other. I think Magic players keep Plague Spitter in their hearts because it's so damn weird, and Magic cards don't really get that weird any more.