Magic: the Gathering cards feature stunning fantasy art, but for some fans that's not enough. Card alterists modify and personalize cards by painting directly on them, creating unique works of art and a brilliant way for fans to interact with their favorite game.
Card altering is one of my favorite aspects of the Magic fan community. As someone with very limited visual arts skill, I've never made my own alter, but I've commissioned and traded for a few, which I proudly use in my Magic Cube. It's such a great way to collect art that doesn't just sit on a shelf or in a collection. Card altering ranges from friends doodling funny faces on each other's cards to actual Magic artists who also do alters, and even artists who alter cards as a full-time job.
I asked alterists what card altering means to them and the Magic community. MJ Scott told me an altered card is, "a little piece of awesome, like putting a Marvel hero on a favorite Legend or turning a set of lands into a panorama. Usually alters are something to bond over and bring people together, and I really enjoy that." (At left, Bruna, Light of Alabaster oversized card by MJ Scott).
For alterist Bryan C., it's all about making the game your own. "The players I've encountered that want alters tend to be highly passionate about the cards they want altered, not caring about the value of the card, but instead valuing what it will be in the end: their own personal flair."
Above, three cards with extended art by Jamie Keddie, lead artist of Joyride Games.
If you're interested in getting some cards altered for your own collection, the name of every card altering artist in this article links to their website or Twitter profile, where you can see their other work and inquire about commissioning an alter.
Above, part of a 60s Batman polyptych by Magic artist Ken Myer Jr.
The first question everyone asks about alters is, "Are they tournament legal?" Technically, no, especially if large portions of the original art or the name and casting cost of the card are obscured. However, if you're playing a casual format with friends, you can obviously use whatever cards you like. (At left: Temple of Deceit by Laura Grace). Alters are also unlikely to raise concerns at lower level events like your local Friday Night Magic. At higher level tournaments, there's a good chance the head judge will disallow heavily altered cards, and it's always up the head judge whether or not to allow alters (even at FNM).
There are many different methods for altering a card. Some alterists use acetone to strip away the original paint, while other actually use fine grit sandpaper. Some just paint directly on the original image. However, the top alterists today don't remove the original image — they paint over it with a thin coat of "primer," light gray or white paint.
I talked to Eric Klug, an alterist in such high demand it's been his full-time job for three years (that's his Candelabra of Tawnos at left). He explained his process: "I often work from references, mocking the cards up in Photoshop to iron out details and check the composition. From there I getting the drawing onto the card that's been prepped with a base coat and build up from there. It's a methodical process that can take six hours to several days."
Ken Meyer Jr. is unique among alterists. "I had been a Magic artist in the past (Arabian Nights, Ice Age and a few more, with cards like Dark Ritual, Ernham Djinn, Guardian Beast, Kird Ape, etc), so I was already sort of in the community," he told me. "When I was living back in Georgia, about 2005, a friend who ran a store suggested me getting into altered cards...I had no clue what he was talking about! The first few I did were just sort of little additions or silly things (like having the Dark Ritual character flip the bird). As I went on, they got more elaborate and eventually became the finished paintings I do now, usually obscuring all of the art on the card, and sometimes more." (At left: Stone-Throwing Devils by Ken Meyer Jr.).
The most basic doodles are free or $5, while simple art extensions typically range from $20 to $30. More complicated alterations cost more, and can vary based on the project and the skill and reputation of the artist.
The phenomenon of card altering has grown and changed over the years, with the best alterists constantly innovating and working with new designs, methods, and forms. Altered cards can be roughly divided into five main types.
These are the alters you and your friends tend to do, usually on each other's less expensive cards. Whether it's a mustache on Mother of Runes or unexpected genitalia, doodles tend to be crude and humorous. Some doodles are more impressive, showing off the artist's talent or making a card look really neat with a few strokes of a Sharpie. What's especially cool is that you can get the actual artist who painted the original card to doodle on it for you. Head to the artist's area at a big Magic tournament or game convention, and you can get your cards signed and doodled on, often for free. More elaborate doodles might cost $5 or so, like this x-wing Stormbound Geist I scored at Gen Con a few years ago.
This is a popular category that doesn't inherently alter what appears on the card, but rather adds to it. The artist might extend the image on the card to the edges, getting rid of the borders. Some expanded art alters cover the rules text entirely, creating what is essentially a textless card with just the casting cost and card name visible. Others creatively extend some element of the art outside the art box, a sort of "breaking the fourth wall" effect. (At left: Gaea's Cradle by Krystal from Rogue Bard Media). Yet another variation takes a newer card and remakes it to appear like a card from Magic's early days. A well-done expanded art alter results in a card that is subtly beautiful.
Krystal at Rogue Bard Media described how she approaches an art extension. "For borderless cards, it usually takes me one or two hours to finish a card. Anything more complicated than that usually takes a lot longer; it all depends on what the customer wants me to put on there. I start with a base coat of black, white, or bluish-gray, and think about what would be going on beyond the edges of the original art. I block in basic colors once I have a plan in place, and then focus on one aspect of the card at a time."
(At left: Kaalia of the Vast by Jamie Keddie, lead artist with Joyride Games).
Above: Mountain triptych by Krystal from Rogue Bard Media.
The majority of Magic card alters are probably those that add a pop culture reference to the card. The original art is usually obscured by, or less often incorporated into, a well-known character from comic books, video games, anime, films, or tv. There's a lot of creative freedom here, of course. (At left: Diabolic Tutor by Laura Grace).
"I've been painting and drawing since I was the ripe age of 11, but something about altering Magic cards seemed really daunting when I was first exposed to it," said alterist Laura Grace. "It's a small surface area with absolutely no room for error. So, I did what every good artist does: said eff it and tried anyway."
Some of the most celebrated alterists create completely original works of art or completely redesign the face of the card. The art often exemplifies or interprets the card's function in the game in a new way. In some cases, the new art is an homage to a school of art or specific famous artist. (At left: Dark Ritual by Laura Grace).
Above: art nouveau Power 9 by Eric Klug.
3D card alters are a niche within a niche, a separate style of altering that's more akin to sculpting than painting. 3D cards are made by taking multiple copies of the same card (plus usually some random cheap cards as filler) and stacking them together. The artist cuts out key portions of the card. When all the layers are glued together, the result is a thick card with raised elements creating a bas-relief effect. 3D alterist Ed Guise, who offers some tutorials on 3D alters on his blog, explained to me that it typically takes seven cards, but it can range from four to 12 depending on the complexity of the project. (Above and left: Zedruu the Greathearted and Goblin Test Pilot by Ed Guise).
3D cards are notoriously difficult to show off in photographs, but look wonderful in person. Since they're too thick to use in an actual deck, players often use them as their Commander/EDH commanders, since those cards are rarely shuffled into the deck. 3D cards can also be made into life counters by adding a string or rod of beads.
I've only been able to feature a few alterists in this article, but there hundreds of artists out there altering cards. You can find them at the Magic alters Facebook group, and find tons of information at the alters reddit thread. Ask around at your local game store, too. Some shops work with local alterists, or may know of someone local who can take on a commission for you.