Artful Breakdown: 2023 in Review

Aaron Radney • December 28, 2023

Ecstatic Beauty | by Alice X. Zhang

Hello once again, and welcome back to Artful Breakdown, the series that takes a look at the art of Magic: The Gathering cards and the strategies, tricks, techniques, and decisions that go into making it. I'm Aaron, a fantasy illustrator myself, and it's my pleasure to be your guide to looking at the interesting stuff you might miss at card size.

With the end of the year on the horizon this time always puts me in a reflective mood. It's a time to ruminate over what's come before and what awaits as the calendar turns once again. We were inundated with products this year and of course with fantastic art to go with it. It didn't feel right to let 2023 pass without doing some sort of recap or review. This year was absolutely stacked with phenomenal work from across the game. 

Year in Review

To that end, I asked my followers on Twitter about some of their favorites. Surprisingly, some consensus emerged and to my joy between that and additional research I found gems that I missed, so today I'm going to go through each major release of the year (minus a couple of Arena only ones) and talk about ONE card that I think is amazing from each of them. Possibly an overlooked gem, possibly something that just needs extra time to look at it, even the sets I wasn't super keen on. Here's the list I'm going to be working with.

A list of all the Magic: the Gathering major sets this year. It has: Dominaria Remastered, Phyrexia: All will be One, March of the Machine, March of the Machine: The AFtermath, MTG Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle Earth, Commander Masters, Wilds of Eldraine, MTG Doctor Who Commander Decks, MTG Lord of the Rings holiday release, Lost Caverns of Ixalan.

[Set list from]

These aren't necessarily the best cards of the year (that'd be a nearly impossible task to decide on). Instead they're cards I think deserve another look. Additionally I set an extra challenge for myself to keep my blue bias in check and I think I succeeded. None of the art on this list comes from a blue card.

 There's a lot to appreciate today so let's get going. 

Dominaria Remastered: Worldgorger Dragon by Nestor Ossandon Leal

An image of Nestor Ossandon Leal's Worldgorger Dragon. A massive dragon comes out of a clear blue sky chasing a retreating army. The dragon looks like something out of a nightmare with a lower jaw that splits into three parts.

There were a number of phenomenal reimaginings of classic cards and concepts in Dominaria Remastered. Much was made of Victor Adame Minguez's Serra Avatar, and while I appreciate the unsettling nods to biblically accurate angels, I went a different direction. Leal's rework of the classic infinite combo piece brings out the power and nightmarishness of the Nightmare Dragon! The curving lines of the composition lead us right to the dragon dominating the magnificently rendered sky and driving off the army as well as giving us a clear and terrifying look at those tripartite jaws!  

Phyrexia: All Will Be One: Plague Nurse by Marcela Bolívar

An image painted in shades of green with a beautiful woman sat in a sensual pose tending a garden of creepy doll-like heads. The image is haunting and oozes danger

One of my favorite pieces I didn't talk about during this set. Plague Nurse has a combination of alluring and off-putting sensuality that's a hallmark of a lot of Bolivar's work. The combination of awe and terror she imbues femininity in her paintings has a powerful edge to it. It feels reminiscent of old fairy tales of young men falling in love with terrifying entities because a pretty form makes them ignore warning signs. Bolivar's work makes you see exactly how those foolish men made those decisions and precisely why you shouldn't. Stellar work that far outshines the confines of a simple common.

March of the Machine: Storm the Seedcore by Jason Rainville

An image of the fight to get Wrenn to the Worldtree so she can bond with it. She's carried by a dark skinned Mirran as a human, a loxodon and a goblin fight together to push back a tide of phyrexians.

Is anyone really surprised? I'm not sure I could've picked any other card as the standout in this set. I wrote a whole article for it here. It's truly a masterpiece and a level up moment for Rainville that's proven one of his most popular pieces thus far. The classic formalism and tight rendering were great choices to represent a moment of triumph for the Mirran Resistance. This was just a grand showcase of the power of storytelling in illustration.

March of the Machine: The Aftermath: Open the Way by Livia Prima

Art for open the way which shows Nissa and Chandra walking through a copse of trees toward an omenpath hand in hand. Their relationship finally cemented.

There's two versions of this art that basically do the same thing. Both are spectacular, but I prefer this one. Like many fans I was unapologetically rooting for this pairing. Aside from the catharsis of seeing Nissa and Chandra reconnect and walk toward an omenpath Asami-and-Korra-style, Prima once again demonstrates that few artists on the roster can get as much out of green hues as she can. The subtle variance in the use of green and blue keeps the whole thing easy to read, and she deftly handles the reds of Chandra such that they provide contrast without pulling too much focus away from everything around her.

The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth: Samwise the Stouthearted by Marko Manev

An image of Samwise carrying Froddo up Mount Doom on his back.

This was suggested to me by my followers and came up a lot as a favorite from this set, and I can't blame people. While the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is incredibly impressive, it had to make concessions for being a massive piece that would create 19 cards. This piece gets the advantage of being a simple and powerful showcase of one of the most pivotal moments of the books and films: Sam, unable to carry the Ring himself, literally puts the mission (Frodo) on his back and carries him up the mountain! It's powerful, iconic, and a singular encapsulation of some of the major themes of The Lord of the Rings. The lighting of the art hammers home that neither Hobbit could've done this alone as Manev chose to let the two figure's forms blend a bit here, and it's such a powerful, deliberate, and affecting decision.

Commander Masters: Demonic Tutor by Donato Giancola

A demon stands behind a woman opening a dark grimoire with its hands menacingly cradling her head as if forcing her to absorb all the wicked knowledge within.

I'd classify this as a hidden gem since it's one of the pieces I almost completely missed this year. Donato brings the confident and more relaxed style we've seen a lot more out of him recently to create an incredibly eerie representation. Very fitting for the OG example of black's tutoring ability. It expertly depicts black's willingness to do anything for power and the price it takes. The looming demon cradling the mortal's head and controlling it completely is complemented by the central and centered composition. It feels rooted, powerful, and inescapable. 

Wilds of Eldraine: Rowan's Grim Search by Aurore Folny

Art of Rowan astride a horse walking over a tiny bridge into the dark forest beyond Eldraine's human lands

She's LITERALLY going to the dark side! Sorry. It's just an obvious and powerful decision, and I got a little carried away. Illustration sometimes gets a bad reputation in art circles for being too literal. Mostly I saw this complaint from fine arts teachers in college, but it's one I've seen time and time again that I was not alone in hearing, yet there's something to be said for the power of the obvious. Rowan travels from the gloomy but still-lit left side of Eldraine into the dark heart of the woods in a moment that depicts an incredibly low point in her life. She rides her horse across a narrow bridge and into the darkness, which feels like a metaphor for the tenuous hold she has on her past and who she was. 

It also really seems to lean on the 'doomed quest' feeling that shows up in a lot of Eldraine's black-aligned cards. 

Doctor Who Commander: Ecstatic Beauty by Alice Xia Zhang

An image depicting a scene from a Doctor Who episode where the Doctor brings Van Gogh to the future to see people responding to his work. The wonder on the Van Gogh actor's face is evident and the art is done in a manner that pays homage to Van Gogh's post impressionist style.

I'm not a huge Doctor Who fan, and you'll recall I didn't write an article for those Commander decks. But this one card I do have a real connection to. I did watch some episodes. I had an ex who was into the show. She and I would watch it together in college, and the episode with Van Gogh is one of the few I remember clearly, largely because we were in art school and it dealt so heavily with the angst that came along with that. It captures the joy of that scene wonderfully, and I especially love the choice to render the piece in an approximation of Van Gogh's own post impressionist style. 

The Lord of the Rings Holiday Set: Myriad Landscape by the Brothers Hildebrandt

art of Helms Deep from Lord of the Rings holiday release used for myriad landscape. The art depicts a massive castle wall and landscape at sunset bathed in glorious yellow and gold light with stunning violet contrast.

This was one I wanted to call out in my original article but just didn't quite have the room. This piece from the duo of older generation masters is suffused in the same rich golden light that graces so many of their pieces, and the landscape does wonders to depict the grandeur and sweep of middle earth. 

It's a great piece to give you the feel of impending adventure and how very wide and large the world must seem to the small folk.

The Lost Caverns of Ixalan: Cavern Crash by RJ Palmer

A highly rendered fantasy T-Rex stomping through a dark cavern chasing an Oltec bat rider. The bat and the dinosaur both have patterns within their wings and feathers.

We close out the year with The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, and I bet you didn't see this one. It wasn't on a card. Rather, it's a promotional art done by RJ Palmer as his first piece for Magic. RJ is an amazing illustrator and paleoartist who you might actually know from his realistic Pokémon illustrations. 

The level of detail is honestly unreal, and on his Twitter he boasts 108 hours of work on this beast. RJ was disappointed to not get a crack at Ixalan the first time around, so when given his deserved shot, he went all out. It's worth going to look at his thread talking about the process, but he even went so far as to illustrate Oltec patterns into the feathers and of the Dino storming through the caves. The level of attention paid to make the fictional beast here seem real is just breathtaking.


And with that we come to the end of the article and this series. I noted in my last article that plans for 2024, regretfully, can't really include continuing this column. I'm quite sad about it. It's been a wild and wonderful ride that began about two years ago from a rambling semi-unhinged Twitter thread. 

If these articles have done one thing, I hope it's reminding us there is a craftsperson and a team of creative human beings behind every single piece of Magic art we enjoy. It's their dedication and skill that brings the worlds of the multiverse to life. Too often we don't appreciate the time, effort, energy and even physical toll making art takes on people. 

Unfortunately, this year has been a rough one for creatives of all stripes. From layoffs to stagnant wages to global shipping issues and the rise of machine AI image-generators, many of your favorite artists and people working in creative fields have struggled more than you probably know, so if you love the art of the game and want incredibly skilled people to get to keep making work that moves and thrills you, remember there's people behind the work you love and support them where you can. Support their stores and Patreons. Advocate for laws that protect them. Encourage companies to pay them what they're worth. We're all in this together. No creative wants to stop creating, but the world often makes it hard.

If you've made it to the end here, thank you and thank you for reading the Artful Breakdown. If you'd like to keep following my own artistic adventures you can do so at any of the socials, like Twitter, or help support me on Patreon. You can also find me on Bluesky or my own website. Take care of yourselves out there!