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Masters 25 Art Review

I love masters sets. Truly the greatest joy I can receive is seeing nostalgic home runs potentially getting new borders, new art and watermarks to allow me to customize my decks even further. Sure, the sets are fun to play, but let’s be selfish here, what’s in it for me? Great art! That’s what’s good.

As a reminder, for those that have been here before, let’s touch on some assumptions:

  • All Magic art is good, with some of it being great. An even smaller amount of artworks are award worthy triumphs. Usually each full sized expansion set has a few to a handful of them.
  • My goal is to help both myself, and you, the reader, to understand both what we see as the card illustration and also the backend construction on how it came to be.
  • Medium is never important for quality and how artists get there is always noteworthy.
  • This is the third masters released set in twelve months.

With those facts and assumptions in mind, let’s dive in.

Arcane Denial by Xi Zhang

Digital

Why is this woman wearing clothes similar to Jace Beleren? Why are the motifs with the light blue magic around her hands, on her face, even belt, reminiscent of Jace?

This is a mind mage and it’s building a visual basepoint of what psychic magic looks like in Magic: The Gathering. Even the lettering that is blurred and bent with purple lining around black letters is shockingly similar to Jace, the Mind Sculptor and his script of magic he’s creating.

I didn’t think Jace had an academy of mind mages. We can only assume this mage is from the Infinite Consortium that Jace was part of, as he had no other associations of similar magic users from his past on Vryn or Ravnica. There is no lore about this, and yet I love how a subtle reprinted card from one art description can shift a planeswalker’s backstory.

And yes, her nails also glow.

Balduvian Horde by Daarken

Digital

Look at the lighting on the woman’s face, what time of day would that be? Is it getting darker and they’re attacking at twilight, or are they up early, organize to attack at dawn? I’m looking at the lovely mountain scene in the back left and back middle and I think it’s dawn. Adding to the idea that Lovisa Coldeyes gives them haste, let’s settle on morning.

That shield is important. Lovisa Coldeyes had different sketches, all including a shield. They’re large and heavy, though people under her ability aren’t just boosted in power, but +2/+2, making a shield and spears fitting for Balduvian Horde.

Lovisa Coldeyes by Anna Steinbauer and Brian Snoddy

Blue Elemental Blast by Izzy

Digital

Izzy Medrano is a highly technically skilled artist. To me, he’s the guy who pushes diversity in all his art, from making a mage “chubby,” to adding diverse characters whenever and however he can. In case you didn’t know, he’s also playing here with his digital brushes to not show us something new, but rather trick our eye into seeing something we’ve seen before — impasto.

Impasto is a painting word to mean thickly applied paint that appears three-dimensional on a surface. Artists don’t dilute the paint, and when added, you can see the visible brushstrokes, normally from a palette knife. Color is then mixed on the canvas, compared to on the palette. When you see oil paintings like a Van Gogh, and viewed in ¾ or a side view, the paint sticks off the canvas. It’s never smoothed. Izzy here, is playing with that idea, yet using the digital medium to show a similar application.

Remember that the finger is on the index finger. I’ll return to that.

Broodhatch Nantuko by James Paick

Digital

Nantuko are insect creatures and I’ve never really been able to get a good grip on what they represent and why. I understand they can be druids or mana producing creatures but they were never very relevant to me. I also didn’t play at this time of Magic and thus these blocks kind of swim together for me in terms of how are they depicted visually. I never have had a good grasp on them. They’re cool but they haven’t aged into Magic current lexicon much other than a few cards. I’m more interested in the background in this particular frame to be entirely honest. I see a dark left tree and on the right, another tree that lets in light from the canopy of the forest, showing us this creature. This isn’t a scary dark forest and lets us know that Nantuko aren’t evil. Frankly, anything that would sit in this frame would benefit from being in a soft light, urging us to think of it as a weird friend or guide, rather than horror on the forest floor.

Coalition Relic by Jason Felix

Digital

Everything about this still life feels dynamic to me.

I see the glass is slowly shifting like velvet at a glance from left to right.

I see lightning in a kaleidoscope of color at the top middle, and I see the reflected colored glass of the artifact itself. Adding in some marble floors places it in a location which I think is smart, and after visiting Rome, I have seen every variation of marble. Here we don’t really get a good sense of what part of Dominaria it’s located in. But if you’re going to follow Donato Giancola, you best bring a solid scene. Jason did a great still life and it’ll make a lot of deck-builders happy to include it.

Diabolic Edict by Franz Vohwinkel

Oil on canvas on hardboard, 10.5 x 13"

I think the pointy teeth really stand out to me more as I see this larger artwork. This is not a new image, as his was in Magic Online as a promo a few years ago. It’s an abstract piece compared to the more literal sacrificing a creature from the past, and I like the allusion of long fingers and fingernails to mean demon or dragon, especially with the scales on them. We can think, “Is this Nicol Bolas, or is it some other unnamed evil doer?” It’s a quiet place with a lot of violence showing to the original cracks in the totem being destroyed. It’s all so peaceful that the candles don’t even flicker for the horrific action being done.

Dirge of Dread by Seb McKinnon

Digital

This is the best new artwork printed in Masters 25 and it’s not close.

Why art directors chose Seb to do this piece is because of his fairy tale macabre style that oozes out of him with ease. He was to do a conceptual symbolic view of what the card does. The art description asked him to make both aspects of the card, the immediate action that the card can be “cycled” or the group intimidate effect. We are also assuming that the character in the left was intended to be shown as such, that the cycling ability hurts that creature in mental capacity, yet the harm also allows it to carry on. I looked for tangible examples of Dance of the Dead or Memento Mori of choir subjects but struggled to find any. You see, the choir back in medieval times, and where “preaching to the choir” came from, were actually just clergy members. There weren’t random citizens who sat nearby to sing. The choir was a location, not a group of people. Here, we see a mage leading a team of the dead in entrancing song, their heads opened to impossible human lengths, giving us an eerie feeling beyond them being skeletons themselves.

In case you’re curious, yes, the figure on the left is based on reference. And no, Seb nor I will be able to tell you what it means. I tried to get it out of him, he wouldn’t budge. Additionally, the stones, or cairns behind them are intentional. Those I can place and I’ll let the sleuths of the internet determine exactly why those designs were chosen.

Seb has been firing on all levels lately. He’s right at the point before Nils Hamm received a planeswalker. Seb is knocking at the door. He just needs a commission to fit his skill set to ascend from player beloved artists, to award-winning artist that receives Magic’s best commissions. It’s time for him to be acknowledged as such.

Doomsday by Noah Bradley

Digital

Noah has been rather quiet lately.

After having quite a few major life changes, he left most social media platforms. He’s back on a few like Twitter, but it’s scheduled posts for public relations. I’m not sure what it all means, though having met Noah more than a few times, I’m never sure how much he is ahead of the curve, reinvention or charlatan smoke from being Oz’s wizard. He forces you to have an opinion of him and his work. I think that’s his best selling point — you can’t ignore what he’s doing.

As for the art itself, I do enjoy the harsh split of palette. Noah takes a nod from Rebecca Guay in the artist using themself as figure reference in their Magic art. He’s an environment and landscape painter, and giving him a powerful spell allows him to flex what skills he’s leveled up. He didn’t hold back. Like his Moat, when given freedom, he will push himself to new lengths. It also means, and I’m aware of, when artists go from their current status, then find a strong constraint by a very specific art description, it can be their last. Creative freedom is a narrow ledge to walk and since Noah is changing again, I wonder how much longer we will have his attention. I hope a while, but I fear he’ll work on some concept for a movie and he’ll graduate out like Karla Ortiz.

Elvish Abberation by Johann Bodin

Digital

I like the glowy green fingernails.

I’d also take note of this being an elf mutant. The lack of a nose is a nod to Swamp Thing. The Bernie Wrightson designed monster is characteristically shown without a nose and only the bones to form a slight bridge. Wrightson used a similar design for his masterpiece Frankenstein depictions as well.

Copyright Bernie Wrightson

Ensnaring Bridge by Titus Lunter

Digital

Titus is now gaining figure commissions from the art directors! Normally an environment and landscape artist, he’s been working extensively on improving his digital studies if you have been watching him on social media. Hopefully his fiancée Suze Helmigh was also helping him out, her personal world building project Caldyra is almost exclusively characters in scenes. She’s doing a Kickstarter for it in April. I’d look out for it.

Being asked to do a very played card, and a memorable card art, for many is scary. Players are incredibly fickle and will, in public, voice their disappointment if you play it safe, or heaven forbid, have issues that manifest to most players.

https://twitter.com/tituslunter/status/968516976036405249?s=21

The then art director for the art, Mark Winters, took a little risk, and it paid off:

https://twitter.com/markwintersart/status/968560838138310659?s=21

As for card art descriptions that have the exact same pose, I have argued that it does make a safer image like Vendilion Clique did. And while it’s delightful for players to have a choice between two moments in time, really choosing frame vs art itself, I do wonder if the trade off in being beloved by players diminishes the chances for something new, a scene that triumphs into an art annual or award. Those are creative team decisions and in an all reprint set, using nostalgia as motivating force to get that “new art,” without good comparable outside of Magic, it’s the right choice.

This was also the animated image posted to delightful effect:

https://twitter.com/mythictalesmike/status/974748362196086784

Erg Raiders by Kev Walker

Acrylic and gouache on heavy stock paper, 8 x 10

This was a SnackTime Cast preview card. We noted that only a few Magic artworks have been entirely in shadow like Commander's Authority. Even shades and banshees are shown bright and in high detail.

This is a traditional painting, despite the almost uniform shade of characters appearing to be different opacities of black in Adobe Photoshop.

The main figure being a woman is an interesting difference compared to the original. The other elements like the helmet and scimitar outlines are direct callbacks to the original artwork. It’s a simple artwork in theory. Execution should be left up to the most reliable of Magic artists, artists like Kev Walker. There’s a reason this original painting sold in less than a day.

Fierce Empath by Johann Bodin

Digital

When changing scale, you will always see more details. It’s a bit of a cheat in my art reviews because I see the jpg in larger size than a 2x3” box. By doing so, we can note the elf’s clawed feet and beard being more prominent than Johann’s partner mutant elf. By comparing side to side, we seek difference and gain an understanding. This is a tenet of art history analysis and something I return to with surgical precision because it works.

Also, by observing details in similar pieces, we are now reminded that Garruk has a beard, as the Green color pie’s first planeswalker. I wonder if he shaves it with his giant axe. He probably does.

Flash by Naomi Baker

Digital

That is some great layered in digital brushstrokes to show a summoning from nothing to something, which keeping the ethereal effect of magic there. It is really stellar work by Naomi.

Also, how perfect is that orange ground? Wonder where we’ve seen that before.

Mirage is an African-inspired set and we see the orange sands everywhere. If the African humans didn’t tip you off to where this card originates, surely the sand should. It should remind you of Namibia, an often photographed location to be nominated for awards like the Mobile Phone Awards shown below:

Palette of Namibia by Nan Deng

Frenzied Goblin by Randy Vargas

Digital

This was my pauper preview card.

As for the art itself. It’s a fun little scene with him bursting out of the window.

Something I didn’t note then and now I can’t unsee:

Did Randy intentionally use a teenage mutant ninja turtle color palette, or is it that now such a trope that American geeks can’t see green skins with armor and wrapping and not think mutant turtles?

Ghost Ship by Bastien Deharme

Digital

This was also a SnackTime Cast preview card.

I’m a huge fan of JMW Turner, as evidence by my Vorthos Art History: The Art of War article. Ships aren’t very common as focal points in Magic’s visual history. Many are destroyed by sea serpents of course, but few are triumphant or interesting as this light blue ship. It makes us think of the blue zombies in Innistrad and Merfolk Assassin in The Dark.

The giant skull on the ship’s prow is a fun touch. Let’s assume it visited Japan and picked up a Gashadokuro.

Goblin War Drums by Wayne Reynolds

A few folks have already commented on the head shapes. They’re hard not to see. With combined planes like Alara as well, I would expect to see more of these hybrids in the future.

https://twitter.com/HairlessThoctar/status/972579621819568130

Wayne loves his details. He gets mental about them, is the quote I recall hearing him say in his British accent. Having a larger image, you can see that the goblins are atop a dinosaur. Checking out the absence of paint around the middle and right goblin’s drumming sticks, you can also see a little paint trick Wayne did. You see a burst of yellow to make it pop against the background. This makes it more readable at card size without sacrificing clarity. It’s all very minor, and a masterwork in knowing the limitations of a 2x3” card box. This will be a great addition to any goblin commander deck being built today.

Imperial Recruiter by Zack Stella

Traditional

If you know you have gotten an expensive or rare card, and can make a traditional painting, you do that. Zack has leveled up again and again, but unlike some, he is still painting, working. We need moments like today to see his minor additions like the tents behind the figure, the intricate armor even Brian Snoddy would approve of and the slight chin beard.

I like that he’s a younger recruiter. It’s always easier to sign up people for the military when they’re closer in age, rather than someone decades older. It’s more believable here, and his charisma is beaming through his high cheekbones, dimples and warmly open hand, lit ever so perfectly that he becomes trustworthy. It’s an excellent work and I’m already envious of the collector who will end up with this masterpiece.

Loyal Sentry by Sara Winters

Digital

Sara did a lovely borrowing of mosque details in her background. The design motif in friezes and on arches is something medieval churches never really got into. They were more sculptural with painted figures. Today, we look at old churches in Europe and everything is gray or white and mosques look gaudy with design and gilding. In reality, those christian churches were bright, colorful and looked like Ripley’s Believe it or Not?

The armor and cloth looks believable, with you not even realizing the figure has a black cloak and doesn’t need to be a male figure either. After seeing Black Panther, and Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones, we should question who actually is this sentry. Simply because the figure is taller than a claymore sword isn’t enough of a tell either. It’s worth pondering over as it can change the intended meaning.

Morph by Seb McKinnon

Digital

Keep it light, keep it abstract and give us a fisheye lens.

Got it.

Call up this Canadian, give him loonies and toonies, and get this framed in your baby’s bedroom. It’s adorable and it’s an act of creation, not unlike your new littlun.

Path of Peace by Nils Hamm

Digital final, color rough and sketches traditional

How sad.

This art description is entirely new.

The other depictions of this effect, destroying a creature card and allowing that creature’s owner to gain life, have all been humans peacefully hanging up their weapons. The “destruction” has been internal and their gaining their normal life back implied. This demon, by the way of the flavor text, is choosing to be killed to escape his existence.

The art is showing a sacrifice effect, yet the card is not a choice. It’s a targeted kill spell.

This doesn’t work at first glance.

Then, you look at the larger image and see other smaller creatures by the demon. This isn’t a sacrifice effect! This is a player, who can control a demon, utilize the demon's imposing power as a lightning rod. The choice appears to be the demon’s but rather, a dueling wizard summons the demon, knowing it will likely be smited. What the flavor text tells us is that the demon and the summoner know each other and the demon isn’t as effective as promised. It’s also tired of being here. Having to be useful to its master, it accepts its fate in needing to, willing to, be destroyed to serve its master by gaining them life. In turn, the promise is that the demon too will be granted rest in the sweet nothingness of oblivion.

Pillage by Jesper Ejsing

Yes Reddit, the lighting under the blanket/tapestry the man is holding isn’t logical. I know. Let us suspend our belief though in what Jesper is trying to show us instead.

We see a burning fort in a palette of oranges, a powder keg waiting to explode and be razed to the ground. The background is opposed by the purple characters and secondary colors. The Phoenix Suns and the Clemson Tigers both use these analogous colors on their team jerseys.

I also want to note the two-point perspective Jesper used to give us a taller fire. There are two vanishing points and it feels like a fish eye lens, including all pertinent information in the middle, with scaling moving to either side. Buildings need not be symmetrical to show the space and indeed, they aren’t.

Image via tes.com

This artwork was also covered by Jesper himself on the stellar Muddy Colors blog, which I always recommend reading.

Red Elemental Blast by Izzy

Digital

Looks like the index finger is blue’s finger. Wagging it back and forth is a no gesture, after all. I like the idea generation by the creative team who wrote the art description. It’s subtle and yet very well done. Red, in comparison is unhinged, untethered. It’s a whole hand saying nah.

Notice how the ring finger has the red spellcaster’s ring. They’re also longer nails, making me assuming this is a mage that is a woman. With no attributed flavor text, we can’t know it’s Jaya or Chandra, but fiery woman mage is pretty built into Magic’s assumptions these days.

In this second half, we see considerably more purple feedback being created from a countered spell. I like that idea that red creates purple from blue rather than /iamverysmart designers trying to make technology or whatever into a new sixth color of magic. Creation out of destruction, especially from a singular source I don’t recall seeing much investigation yet.

Relentless Rats by Johann Bodin

Digital

Mirrodin, and now New Phyrexia, only had four rat cards represented: Chittering Rats, Ichor Rats, Relentless Rats, and Septic Rats. As our depiction here represents a downshifted card from uncommon in this collectible card game to common, the Pauper format will see these little guys a bit more often.

I’d like to note the location they’re in, the swamp area by the Vault of Whispers or Ish Sah, is the Mephidross. The green toxic fumes are still emitting from within the planar core, adding gaseous glistening oil to continue the phyrexianization of the plane. I would think the actual visuals would change as the war is over and the antagonists covered the plane. Instead, we are to see that compleation, that is fully transforming one into the Phyrexian hive mind is not universal. And it is not yet complete! For people who have read past columns of mine, this is another example of a live look into a plane which is exactly what supplemental sets can do.

Know I’m not a rat but I’m all about my cheddar.

Renewed Faith by Steve Argyle

Digital

Steve went full modern in his depiction of stained glass. I grew up in Germany and even wrote about how early stained glass, or putz glas, was made, in case you’re curious. The colors of pink and blue fade over time, and how he handles curvature is done so in a clean, perfect and textured way. As we set our barometer to how much realism we want in our fantasy, this skews more fantasy and that’s totally acceptable. It counteracts with a black woman priestess, diversity that we rarely saw in depictions of any religious or angelic charters on Serra’s plane or shown with her followers. We should have seen it then, instead of uniformly blonde, white women. It was an oversight in the original block. I’m happy to see that they’re paying attention to representation, and pushing it ever so slightly in supplemental sets.

Savannah Lions by Winona Nelson

Digital

The original Alpha depiction had two lions shown. That was before there were logical art guidelines like one human is 1/1 and if you see three of them, they should be at least 3/3. Instead, this art description asked for what mimicked the Alpha depiction. I like that. It’s simple and it works.

The bits of red on the male lion and minor addition of green in the modgrousn grass are nice touches to an otherwise limited palette painting. I would think of Ryan Pancoast and Lars Grant-West, the two Rhode Islanders known for depictions like this. Now I will think of Winona, the only Magic artist that originally hails from my state of Minnesota.

Shoreline Ranger by Magali Villeneuve

Digital

Wet armored bird humanoid in a rainstorm: that’s not something you see every day being asked for in card art. I’m trying to place the bird by location and I’m struggling to find a good home on Dominaria that fits this area. I think in a lot of other trading card games, they may force the creature into a known location simply because it’s convenient. Magic doesn’t do that because in doing so you have to provide reference, and any artistic license has to be approved for even a background Shoreline. They keep it simple and the focus stays on the bird humanoid itself.

Also, that’s a heck of a good Skeksi head.

Skirk Commando by Slawomir Maniak

Digital

Thick brushstrokes are are lovely with digital brushes. With the tight brushes on the goblin’s face and weapon, it’s as if the camouflage is blurring our vision. I am really enjoying these master studies in landscapes, adding some polish, then focusing on one character in that Constructed environment. It makes for focused art in a beautiful setting. Misty backgrounds are being phased out, with an emphasis on the entire scene, not just the character. And I think it’s a good thing.

Stangg by Izzy

Digital

Why does he have a red beard?

Stangg Twin token by Izzy

Digital

Maybe they dye it.

Lovely works by Izzy per always. Note that the background is shifted, they’re standing next to each other. This would make a killer oversized wider playmat, in case you’re a commander player needing some spice in your life like that red beard.

Sundering Titan by Grzegorz Rutkowski

Digital

The Platinum Emperion that even I got wrong. The spiked arms I saw as more similar to that other Mirrodin giant. This art was on the packaging, and removed the hexagonal plates on the ground, characteristic of Mirrodin that it’s destroying with every step.

The reflections are also nice. They were in the original design of Mirrodin, literally the first concept artworks.

Undead Gladiator by Slawomir Maniak

Digital

You’d think even a zombie would get new clothing, not forced to wear the same things in death as he did in life. Though, does it matter what it wears? Honestly? He’s celebrating with his broken sword like he’s announcing the spicy garlic Buffalo Wild Wings chicken breasts are done on the grill. And no, that isn’t a hand.

Great backlighting coming in to showcase the kicked up dust from the battle. It’s a nice touch.

Unearth by Jehan Choo

Digital

Yes of course the best creature to unearth was a 5/5 creature, and that creature can be entombed and unearthed turn one in Cube. What a fun callback to Phyrexian Negator. The saturation of yellow we also haven’t seen yet. Normally that is red, like devils would emerge from on Innistrad, or green mist like a stinking cloud or fog. Yellow is unnatural, and the more green you add, the more Mephidross and Phyrexianized you may get. I think pushing yellow is a good new direction for the Phyrexians and this is a preview.

Valor in Akros by Chris Rallis

Digital

If this feels like it came from something else, it did. Duels of the Planeswalkers has countless images used for quests, cut scenes and other motion graphic goodness. This is a well constructed scene because it was intended to be a scene. That it can also be a card art is heads up art directing and shows great communication across the aisle that in a future reprint set, this would be available. This art differs from slush art because it had a marketing purpose. It’s then utilized for another role and the artist gets artist proofs.

Even young Gideon had great hair.

Willbender by Svetlin Velinov

Digital

On that note, I like his hair.

Zombify by Jason Engle

Digital

This is one of those images that benefits from the card frame. Without the black edge, this doesn’t necessarily feel like a black spell. It could be dying or coming back alive, it’s a little ambiguous until you see the necromancy border and it snaps into focus.

Overall, Masters 25 is a lovely set and having at least one a year is always a benefit for deck-building.

—Mike


Masters 25 is available now!