Hello folks! I hope your day is well!
Today I want to start a five-part series where I look at the art for each of the basic land types in the game. I have played since the first Swamp art in Alpha/Beta were available in booster packs, prior to the first slate of alternate basic land art in Ice Age. I have seen every set release, and I have played in everything from Portal to Cold Snap to the Un- sets with their art. I have copies of every single promo, APAC, Euro, Guru and Arena land in my signature deck, Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy.
I got this.
I want to look at what I consider the top Swamp art of all time. Now, any such list will ultimately be subjective. You will see everything from promo Swamps to ones released recently in my list today, from the history of the game. There are (very) roughly 150 different pieces of art out there for Swamps alone.
Note that Gatherer is missing some pieces of basic land art. For example, you cannot find the Guru lands on there, nor do you see Tony Roberts’ cycle of Arena lands, among others. You cannot just look up the art on Gatherer and do a quick count.
Gatherer is not a perfect tool. (It doesn’t have the holiday promos like Snow Mercy, as a good example, nor the HasCon 2017 promos like Nerf War; nor does it have the correct rarity for certain cards listed.). You may need to reference other places, like stores.
Now a fair warning. I am not an artist. I am not an art critic. None of my commentary or thoughts are meant to represent anything other than that of a fan who owns these and has played the game since the beginning. At the end of the last article, I’ll do a quick Top Ten of All Of My Basic Land Art and combine my list into one.
Here are my choices for the best, Swamps:
Honorable Mention #1 – Dominaria Swamp by Dimitar Marinski
I know that a lot of folks were likely drawn to the Cabal Swamp as it reflected older Cabal art from Onslaught and Odyssey block. But I was drawn to Dimitar’s Swamp scene here. It’s very strong, with a lot of things happening that catch your eye, from the board to the various houses and lights on them. There doesn’t feel like a false note is on their piece, and I really enjoy how you feel in a Swamp and yet there is activity here. Things are afoot in the Swamp. It’s not just some desolate, long-dead place. I feel that the result is a strong piece of art!
Honorable Mention #2 – Shadowmoor Swamp by Lars Grant-West; M10 Swamp by Alex Horley-Orlandelli
I don’t know if Lars and Alex were intentionally trying to riff off each other’s Swamps or not. But I’ve never seen a pair of lands this closely matched that wasn’t in the same set, depicting the same place. Shoot, I have artwork that hits the same place in some sets that’s not this perfectly matched. The purple-fog Swamps both have a nice look to them, and it looks like you are panning across the same art, so nicely done!
Honorable Mention #3 – Promo Swamp by John Avon
John Avon can really draw a beautiful land at times, and he hits it out of the park with this promo piece of work. This is from 2004 and it exhibits as strong sense of Mirrodin and is one of the best pieces of art set there. The plane oozes life here, and the artistry here that melds colors, details, and death/life for the machine plane really stand out. Good job!
Now, here are my choices for the best Swamp art ever done!
10. Ixalan Swamp, by Min Yun
I enjoy art that stands out and tries to do something different. As a comparison, here are two other Ixalan Swamps. Note how rote they are.
Neither of those does anything new or unusual. Nor are they taking a normal Swamp-setting and elevating it. I don’t see anything different or new. I don’t have a visceral connection to the art. One of them is in the signature “Wandering Jace” collection and still doesn’t stand out. But Min Yun’s work does! It’s not just a dark, black, unlit area with very little happening. Take a look at #8 below for another Swamp that really steps outside of Swamps and does a good job. For example, compare these pieces to say, Susan Van Camp:
Here’s are the trio of Portal 2 Swamps that she did. None of these are making my Top Ten list, although I really like them! She has the same Swamp-y Black on black on grey feel of the first two, but here, I can make things out. When I hold the Christine Ixalan Swamp in my hand next to one of these, I can actually make out the details without being forced to hold it up to my eye or squint. Susan Van Camp knows how to make each of these Swamps stand out while still being limited in color. Of these, the middle with the ruin of the temple or observatory that’s leaning over is my favorite. But all are good. This is what I am looking for from my Swamps.
9. Euro Swamp, by Mike Ploog
What makes this Swamp work is that it’s both dark and feels like the many other Swamps out there, while also feeling very different. This is one of the works that is of a real place, and for this series, you can see the real place at the bottom. Here it’s in France. The real life setting likely gives it an interesting grounded nature that makes the work more evocative. The use of purple and other colors blending into the distance is also not your normal Swamp art, which usually seems zoomed in, rather than looking at the horizon. That different perspective really makes this piece work for and resonate with me. Good job Mike!
8. Amonkhet Swamp by Steven Belledin
Steven Belledin has captured of one the most realistic settings I have ever seen in basic land art. You can just step out of the frame and into the world beyond. There’s just something here that works perfectly. From the stream and sand to the desolate landscape, there is a lot here for me to recommend. It’s a picture I can walk into!
7. New Phyrexia Swamp, by Lars Grant-West
Welcome back Lars! One of the hard things that the artists of Scars block (and in particular this set) had to do was to really show New Phyrexia as a distinct thing that still felt Mirran. It’s not easy to do. Here we have a Swamp that’s in New Phyrexia, feels like it’s a fallen, new thing, and yet is still Mephidross. Still Mirran in context. It’s like weaving a new shawl from the parts of an old one. Lars really hits that out of the park in a way that the others don’t. He makes the entire world sing, feel Swamp-y, and yet alive. It’s both. It’s very nicely done. From the colors to the context, to the enshrouded figure. Good job Lars!
6. Khans of Tarkir Swamp, by Sam Burley; shout out to Dragons of Tarkir Swamp by Adam Paquette
The Burley Khans Swamp is something I always found surprisingly relevant. The time travel trick of showing a land early and then later (or earlier) with changes is something that I really enjoyed, but I found this one to do that trick the best. The Sam Burley Swamp feels so unlike a traditional “Swamp” that’s it’s more like a non-basic land. But then you see the decaying and vines and such and there is a ”lived in” that has a dark feel in the water and nearby. And then Adam’s Swamp comes along and it does hit the traditional Swamp feel with ruins long since reclaimed by nature, and the Swamp parts feel more like a Swamp. This duo feels like it evokes the changes of time trope better because, unlike just showing something with more greenery or something, the entire area is in ruins, and the land shifts to feeling more like it’s normal type. Well done!
5. Odyssey Swamp by Arnie Swekel
I am probably biased. I have a copy of this signed by Arnie Swekel after I beat him in a pre-release tournament at the time (he signed all of the art from my deck that he created). I may be biased, and I admit that up front. But I don’t think so. I could be wrong! But I think this is a strong piece of art that stands on its own. For art during the era of traditional old-school works in the pre-modern art, this is an incredibly realistic piece. It has a strong style and sense of itself that I think is perfectly captures both the feel and look of a Magic Black Swamp as well as a place you could see anywhere.
Here, let me give you some of the context of other Swamps during this era of the game:
What I’ve done is go back and forward a couple of years in time to share some other Swamps. No disrespect to the artists; they all feel by-the-numbers to me. They are interchangeable and boring. Arnie Swekel’s is different, and very evocative of Swamps. For me, he’s one of the best of his era, and his work stands the test of time beyond my personal connection to it!
4. Innistrad & Avacyn Restored Swamp by Jung Park
Take a look at this Swamp-ish pair! Innistrad was a big flavorful hit, and the lands are a big part of it. Jung Park’s Swamp in Innistrad is a perfect start for the world. It perfectly captures the plane. The dark fog-Swamp Graveyard with its decaying matter is eerie, and you can easily imagine Zombies or other undead coming out en-masse to attack the nearby town that dared to allow their rest to go disturbed and forgotten for so long! And then we get another Swamp-land later with some light and a different take. Avacyn may have been restored, but the land will take time to recover. Both of these lands do a good job.
A quick shout out to my favorite Swamp from the revisit by Jonas de Ro:
Let’s check out Jung Park again…
3. Swamp by Jung Park
This is one of the sorts of classic styles that I think is elevated by the designer. It has been heavily reprinted and is in everything from Magic 2012 to various Commander sets. You know it. There’s nothing in this Swamp that you won’t see in lots of other Swamps. Decaying plant matter. Dark colors. The intermingling of water and elements. Dead trees in the background leaning from one side of the frame to another. It’s a normal picture you’d see on lots of Swamps. But Jung Park has created a world that lives. From the use of Green to show some living life here to the birds flying in the background for perspective, the entire scene is vivid and stark and alive. Life and death meet here in a welcome embrace.
2. Lorwyn Swamp, by Ron Spears
In real life, Swamps are not these dank, dour, dark places they are often portrayed as on most Magic art. This is a very strong piece of art, because not only is a strong contrast to other Swamp art out there, but Spears does a great job at making this piece work. The colors! The imagery! And yet the Swamp feel! It all meshes beautifully together! This is not going to be Ron’s highest charting Swamp for me either, by the by.
Let’s check out Ron Spears again….
1. APAC Swamp, by Ron Spears
I call this the “Fire Swamp”. Not only is it my favorite Swamp art, but it’s one of my favorite art in the game itself. This was part of the APAC series, and it was in the blue pack if I remember correctly. There is so much to love in this art. I love the location of a graveyard, and not only does that feel Black and Magic-y in a really cool way, but it also suits the setting as well. The graveyard is overgrown and dilapidated and that also works for me as a strong way to see something overtaken. The little fiery small balls feel like a Will-o'-the-Wisp or similar Black card from the early days of the game. The tree to the left works perfectly to ground and give the piece some perspective and connection. This is a piece of art that truly stood with me, and to this day, I just love it.
There we are! What did you think of my list? Anything in here I missed or that you would have liked to have seen with a shout out? Just let me know!
Next week we’ll be tackling Plains.
P.S. – Did you enjoy this Top Ten List? Great! I just created a Top Ten List for the best fantasy works of all time over on my YouTube channel. Check it out and let me know what you think!!! https://youtu.be/4uj-WW9822M