Art has been an essential part of Magic: The Gathering as far back as the game's initial concept. That concept came to be through a chance conversation between Wizards of the Coast founder Peter Adkison and game designer Richard Garfield at their first meeting in 1991.
Garfield had flown out to demonstrate a boardgame design for Adkison, who described that fateful meeting in a 1995 article "How Magic Was Born," for The Duelist Magazine number six. Disappointed that Adkison's start-up gaming company was not in a position to publish the board game idea he'd presented, Garfield, eager to demonstrate his game design chops, told Adkison to "describe a game concept—any concept—and I'll design a game around it for you."
Impressed by Garfield's keen mind and exuberant love of games, Adkison presented him with a design challenge for a game that could be picked up and played with a minimal amount of equipment and in a minimal amount of time. "I figured a card game would work," Adkison wrote in The Duelist, "since the game would need to be highly portable. I also wanted something with a fantasy or science-fiction theme that would be a nice vehicle for showing off artwork." Garfield took that germ of an idea and returned to Adkison a week later with the idea for what would become Magic: The Gathering, and an entire new genre of gaming: Trading Card Games (TCGs).
Where Adkison initially envisioned licensing and using existing fantasy art, newly appointed Art Director Jesper Myrfors had other ideas. Licensing existing artwork was expensive, and did nothing to make Magic visually unique. Knowing Wizards was on a shoestring budget, and wanting Magic to have its own visual identity, Myrfors, still an art student at Cornish College of Art, tapped his growing circle of artist contacts.
"Originally, I was working on the Talislanta books and Primal Order," Myrfors said in a 2019 interview with BigAR, speaking of Wizards' early forays into RPGs, "and those were the projects I started to gather the base of artists that I wanted to work with." As work on Magic picked up steam, RPG books fell to the wayside as the company poured all its resources into this new game concept. The problem facing them was largely financial. "We were all working for stock at that point because there just was no cash. It was a gamble everyone was taking," Myrfors said in the interview.
But Myrfors and the rest of the staff at Wizards believed in Magic, and their zealous devotion to the game was contagious. " I had almost an evangelical fervor about the game, I believed in it that much," Myrfors said. "And I've heard from other artists that it was my excitement of the project that got them involved because they didn't really understand what the game was."
Working like most at Wizards, primarily in exchange for stock in the company, Myrfors recruited a number of artists who would go on to become major names in science fiction, fantasy, and gaming artwork including Christopher Rush, Quinton Hoover, Amy Weber, Anson Maddocks, Melissa Benson, and others.
We know Magic went on to be a resounding success, and the art created for the game over the years has gone on to become some of the most iconic art in fantasy and gaming. People outside Magic might not know what a Black Lotus card does in game terms, but there's a good chance they'll know the name and recognize the iconic Christopher Rush artwork. But that hasn't always been the case.
A Guide To The Original Magic Art Market
Like the Magic secondary market, the market for original Magic artwork has evolved considerably as the game has grown. To best understand the current state of the Magic art market, I reached out to Mike Linnemann, aka @VorthosMike to bring me up to speed. For those in tune with the Magic art scene, Linnemann perhaps needs no introduction, having written extensively on the art and flavor of Magic: The Gathering for years at Mana Nation/Gathering Magic/Cool Stuff Inc. He even did a brief stint writing flavor text for Wizards, which you can see on cards like Remember the Fallen, which he also named.
Like many of us, Linnemann got started in Magic early, playing with his Boy Scout troop. While his fellow scouts were playing Grizzly Bears, Linnemann was playing Dark Ritual into Hypnotic Specter. "Bringing that kind of violence into the camp tents kind of escalated things quickly from there," he joked during our Zoom conversation.
Even before Magic: The Gathering, a love of art was a huge part of Linnemann's life. In a 2015 interview with Bruce Richard on DailyMTG.com, Linnemann said visiting a medieval armory museum at the age of two sparked his lifelong passion for art. Spending his early childhood growing up in Germany also helped fuel his artistic appreciation. "Basically, I grew up in Innistrad's Kessig, complete with werewolves and the subsequent art traditions—fairy tales and illuminated manuscripts were just precursors to Magic's art. All those tropes and familiar things you see come from somewhere, after all," Linnemann said in the interview.
Earning a BA and MA in art history and arts management at the University of Minnesota, Linnemann turned his passion for art into a career. He worked for two years in the registrar's office at the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, where he experienced hands-on navigating the ins and outs of art copyright, and parlayed his skills and knowledge into a role as an Associate Art Director at Fantasy Flight Games, working on Star Wars: The Card Game.
More recently, Linnemann has moved into the non-profit world, though he still runs a small art brokerage business on the side, and works on several Magic-related passion projects which we'll discuss later. Having worked on pretty much every aspect of trading card art short of picking up a brush, I was excited to pick his brain on a topic I know little about.
How Big Is The Magic Original Art Market
I'll admit upfront having some assumptions about the Magic original art market. One of them was the size and scale of the market. It's much larger than I realized. When you stop and think about it for a moment though, there are a lot of Magic cards made every year and each of those cards needs art. "Nothing commissions as much art as Magic," Linnemann told me via Zoom, "compared to anything. Compared to the Vatican. No exaggeration. Think of how many unique illustrations by one hand are made in a year...there is nothing that rivals it." So with thousands of pieces of art coming out every year, not to mention sketches and color studies, who is buying all this art?
Who Is Collecting Magic Art?
My unscientific thinking about the art market was that it would be confined mostly to the top 1-3% of the Magic-collecting market. People with multiple graded sets of Power Nine, or other deep investments in Reserve List cards. "You'd think [that was the case]," Linnemann said. "Obviously art costs more than a card, on average, and there's only so many Chains of Mephistopheles [you can buy]." But the reality is a bit different. "Mind you," Linnemann said, "Magic is 30 years old, so if you were 15 [back then], you're now 45. You have way more disposable income now vs. then."
There is then, what Linnemann calls an "onboarding process" into collecting Magic art which happens as people age out of playing the game regularly. "They want to stay current," he says. "They're playing once a week, or playing on Arena, [but their cards] are still in a box. For these people who have graded stuff, unless they have a display, it's in a box. They don't see and they don't interact with Magic."
"Whereas you have a painting on the wall," he says, pointing to one of his own paintings off-screen, "you interact with it every day and it keeps you feeling current whether or not you're listening to Mark Rosewater's podcast every week."
The demographics driving most Magic art sales then are not exclusively high-end graded collectors or even the people who buy artist proofs Linnemann says. "It's people that played heavily and want that feeling of nostalgia. 'I had this in my deck, here are my 15 creatures, I want to have one of those and I want to see it every day.'" It's a similar demographic to the people who are buying prints from artists at Grand Prix events. "People who buy prints at a GP and people who buy graded cards are really different people," Linnemann says.
What Drives The Interest In Original Magic Art?
While today nostalgia among Magic players appears to be one of the key factors getting people into the Magic art market, it's not the only driving force. One of the other major factors is visibility to the art world in general, outside of the Magic community. This hasn't always been the case.
Back in the early 2010s, the Magic community had yet to catch on to the art, and the art world outside Magic wasn't interested. This meant prices of Magic art were still relatively cheap. At the time, "paintings could be bought for $100-300 dollars," Linnemann says.
But the Magic community wasn't interested in spending the money, and the people outside of Magic, "they just didn't get the art," Linnemann says. When you consider the prices of Magic cards at the time as context, Revised dual lands at $100 or less, it makes sense why Magic players might not have been interested in a $300 dollar painting. It's still shocking though to think about the missed opportunities many who now collect Magic art were sleeping on back then. "You could have bought [the art for] Mox Pearl for $2000," Linnemann says.
As interest in Magic art has grown within the Magic community since then, and as prices of Magic art have steadily increased over the years, the public, and the outside art world has begun to take note. Today, "every time there's a major sale, Kotaku or whoever picks up on it, and it brings more eyeballs and it brings more major collectors who really have the funds to go deep," Linneman says. "When there are bidding wars, it's real. Two people that are like 'I don't care how much it is.' This is ego now involved."
Linnemann acknowledges that as major collectors with deeper pockets get involved, it does become more difficult for some of the longtime Magic art collectors, many of who specialized in niche themes like elves, birds, etc., to compete in some cases. "You can't really [specialize like that] anymore," Linnemann says, "because you have to go deep."
The effect this has had on the art market overall has created waves. Increasing prices cause long-time collectors to sell their holdings back into the market, putting more eyes on Magic art, bringing more people into the Magic art market, pushing up prices further, and repeating every few years. This has been good not only for legitimizing Magic art but also for supporting Magic artists financially, both of which Linnemann sees as good and necessary. "We're working to raise visibility and to raise all boats," he says.
At this point you might be asking yourself: should I invest in Magic art? What should I buy?
Should I Invest In Magic Art?
This is a complex question that can best be thought of by exploring the ideas discussed in my articles on why or why not to invest in Magic cards themselves. If you read through and apply the thought processes behind those articles to Magic art, you will be able to determine whether or not investing in Magic art is a good fit for you.
If you do decide that investing in Magic art is something you want to pursue, Linnemann has some suggestions to get you the best return on investment. Especially when looking at new pieces of Magic art, he has a checklist of questions to keep in mind: "is this card hard to reprint, is it going to be played, is it going to be useful, is it something people will want, and is it done by an artist synonymous with quality?" If you can say yes to all of those things about the card, then the art for that card has investment value. What if you're not interested in Magic art as an investment?
I Just Want To Buy Some Cool Art. What Should I Buy?
While investment in Magic art is certainly possible, and can potentially be lucrative to speculate on, I'm inclined to think that buying Magic art primarily for its esthetic value is a better bang for your buck. What to buy though is largely subjective. The short answer is to buy whatever you want! The long answer is to look for Magic art pieces you like, and that hold some kind of meaning to you, whether it's a piece of art by your favorite Magic artist or art of a particular card you enjoy. Whatever the reason, it should be the kind of piece of art that you will want to hang on the wall and look at every day.
Where Can I Buy Magic Art?
If you're interested in diving in and exploring, I'd recommend checking out the MTG Art Market on Facebook, or the Original Magic Art Store website, which sells original art, prints, and official merchandise including playmats and artist tokens. All of the major auction websites including eBay and Heritage Auctions also frequently sell Magic art, including iconic pieces going all the way back to Limited Edition Alpha.
What If The Piece Of Art I'm Interested In Doesn't Exist Physically?
Many Magic artists work exclusively digitally, or the final versions of their pieces exist only digitally. This means for those of us interested in collecting original art, the options for acquiring those pieces are limited or non-existent. In cases like these, it sometimes doesn't hurt to contact the artist and see if they have any preliminary sketches or color studies available for purchase. Sure they won't be as pristine and polished as the final digital piece, but they will be the closest you can come to have that final piece.
Another option Linnemann suggests is mono-prints. This is where an artist who works digitally makes a print of their work, but they change something about it when they print it, making each print unique to its customer – hence, mono-print. This maintains scarcity, and thus value, for a physical object that didn't otherwise exist.
What If I Just Want To See The Art In Person, And Not Necessarily Buy?
If seeing Magic original art in all its glory is something that appeals to you, then do yourself a favor: log on to Twitter and find out the next city where the Magic Art Show will be stopping. Curated by Mike Linnemann and with the support and cooperation of Josh Krause of the Original Magic Art Store, Rico Evangelho of Cardamajigs, and Brian Scott Walters, the Magic Art Show is the only traveling exhibit of Magic original art in the world. The show debuted at Grand Prix Las Vegas in 2017 and was instrumental in facilitating the art exhibition of MTG Japan's 25th Anniversary Celebration in Tokyo in 2018. With art spanning across Magic's history and diverse settings, there's something for Magic players and non-Magic players alike to appreciate.
I hope you enjoyed this foray into the world of Magic art. I want to give a big thanks to Mike Linnemann for patiently answering all of my questions. Please check him out on Twitter at @VorthosMike.
Also, don't forget to follow the Magic Art Show for updates on their event schedule and when they may be in a city near you.
Has this made you want to buy some Magic art? What is your favorite piece of Magic art? Your favorite artist? Leave a comment or let me know via email or Twitter.