Good morning! This week’s article was spurred by one of those strange lightbulb moments that come only when you’re trying to do a hundred other tasks. But first, we need a story.

I really enjoy kitchen table Commander. With the advent of Commander 2018, I decided that it was high time to finally brew up the deck I had been thinking about. At Grand Prix Washington, DC in May 2018 I used my leftover prize wall tickets to snag a foil Conspiracy Grenzo, Dungeon Warden, described by my playgroup as one of the “most Donny cards I could have possibly found.” It has been literal years since I made a fresh Commander deck from scratch. Commander 2018’s anticipation had me watching some episodes of Game Knights by The Command Zone. In the first one I watched, wouldn’t you know it but Josh Lee Kwai played a version of a Grenzo deck based off another deck by show regular Mel Li. It looked like an absolute blast, and was the kick-start I needed. I went to work.

Fast forward to now, knee deep in deck building. I realized as I was considering my 99, I enjoyed choosing the art and edition of each card just as much as the card itself, and that’s what today’s article is about. I realize this probably isn’t earth shattering; I write about Magic art and have said I remember cards based on their art box, not what they do. But Commander is a place players like to express themselves, whether is foiling, signatures, and alters, or in this case hand picking each card, art, and frame to fit what they want their deck to be.

Today we’ll look at some of the decisions I made, why I made them, and where this deck is headed from here.

Decisions, Decisions

Let me first start by saying there is nothing wrong with any of this art. My choice doesn’t mean I’m saying any particular piece is better than any other. Instead what follows is a glimpse into the decision-making behind which cards I chose for my deck, based entirely on my personal art and aesthetic preferences. Because of the visual impact of card frames and foiling, some cards will include every printing of the card and not just the different versions of art.

You’ll see my choices are determined by a bit of everything, from my favorite artists to pure nostalgia and everything in between. Sometimes it’s just what I have available, and in these cases I’ll tell you what I have and what I’m planning in the future. You’ll also see I give extra consideration especially if I am going to see the artist in the near future, in hopes of having them sign the card. With that all out of the way, are you ready? Let’s Choose Commander Art!


Grenzo is from the high city Paliano on the plane Fiora, first seen in the Conspiracy sets. To the best of my knowledge Fiora does not have art-specific basic lands, which left this wide open. I chose two complimentary Battle for Zendikar full art lands, if for no other reason than being great art and wanting an opportunity to use them,

I also have exactly one of each Unglued Mountain and Unglued Swamp, so here is their temporary home. I usually like a full matching set of lands, but I made a concession in this case, just for fun. I may in the future switch entirely over to the Unglued lands, as they seem to be a nice fit, or based on the Ravnica previews of last weekend, the Rakdos basic lands that come out next year. We’ll see.

You’ll see by the end of this article when it comes to landscapes, I’m often drawn to the work of Rob Alexander, given the choice. The Masterpiece Expedition Blood Crypt is alluring and I am also a big fan of Min Yum’s work, but Alexander’s original reminds me of my early days of playing Magic and just feels right at home here. I will be seeing him in a month or so and plan to get my childhood copy signed for this deck.

The whimsy of Foglio’s Sulfurous Springs in black border gets the nod here, with Rob Alexander’s art in the 10th edition black border being a very close second. If I happen along one of 10th edition in foil in my travels that I could get signed, it may overtake the Jacuzzi-loving devil, but for now the Ice Age version is a welcome touch of silliness. He and Grenzo smile the same!

I absolutely love the new art for Dragonskull Summit by Alayna Danner. The work is super flavorful for its original commission for Ixalan, and makes for a beautiful card in this deck as well. Check out her other landscapes in Magic—she is an artist to watch for beautiful cards in the future.

Bloodstained Mire poses a difficult choice. You’ll see by the end of this article I am a big fan of Mike “Daarken” Lim, and I am currently running this version because I have one. However there is a certain nostalgia associated with Rob Alexander’s original Onslaught art for this fetchland. If I can acquire a clean card with his art in any version to have it signed, it will get the slot.

I remember opening the strangely-framed Future Sight Graven Cairns by Anthony S. Waters way back when, and I also happened to have the reprinted Iconic Masters version I opened just recently. While there is something classic about the eerie mystery of the Waters version, I’m on the hunt for the Shadowmoor Rob Alexander version, preferably in foil, as its much more cohesive with the other lands, especially if the others are also his art.

I’ll admit, I didn’t own Ancient Tomb or Strip Mine in any form until about a month ago. I didn’t play when they were first released, didn’t want to buy lands when I had some extra pocket money as a kid, and only recently started enjoying Commander to the point of optimizing decks. Howard Lyon’s appearance at Illuxcon in October solidified my decision to go for broke on the Expedition versions of both of these that literally walked into my LGS the day I texted asking about them. Have you seen Lyon’s Unicorn Blood signature? Google it. Unstoppable.

Scourge was one of the very first sets I played, and Temple of the False God, as far as I can remember, was opened at my first prerelease. It has lived in any Commander deck I’ve made from scratch, and the Brian Snoddy original art is a wonderful aesthetic fit for the deck.


I really do like both versions of Hell’s Caretaker, as different as they are. Sandra Everingham’s abstract, Balrog-like horror has that early Magic feel, and I would absolutely play a black bordered Legends version. I did, however, open a foil Masters 25 Greg Staples version of this card, and that’s the one that gets sleeved up. It’s hauntingly beautiful, and in combination with the foiling and watermark makes it the choice for me here.

Nekrataal is another case of the art I remember versus a very strong illustration. Christopher Moeller’s art is just so incredibly detailed. I own one of his paintings, and at full size and card size his art is stunning, so it’s this art that makes it into the deck.

I remember Duplicant and Solemn Simulacrum by their original art when they first came out in Mirrodin, and I’ve seen the reprinted art in the Commander sets over the last few years. They’re all good. But the two most recent versions by Slawomir Maniak and Daarken for the Masterpiece Invention series are just exceptional. I do not have either one currently, but will be looking to add these two very complimentary pieces very soon.

With fond memories of the first depiction of Kiki-Jiki, I ultimately chose to go with the newer Steven Belledin version. If this was a Kamigawa or similar themed deck the Venters version would be a lock, but as it stands I much prefer the “powering-up” steely resolve of Belledin’s Kiki as he is ready to combo off.

Another difficult choice, as I have always played with the original Christopher Moeller art of Siege-Gang Commander whenever I found myself in need of three extra goblin tokens. Enter Aaron Miller’s new painting for Dominaria. It’s so much fun as goblins are being shot through the air in true goblin fashion, and I may just have to switch to this version. Miller still has his original sketch available as well, and we know if I own a form of the art, I’ll certainly be playing that version of the card.

While both illustrations for Fleshbag Marauder are equally grotesque (and as well they should be), I usually lean towards the tamer in cases of creepiness. The original by Mark Zug was available at last year’s Illuxcon (it has since sold) and this is the version I ultimately went with. Hopefully I can find a foil version for him to sign over the next month.

Clint Cearley is a master of motion, and the art on the Priest of Urabrask non-foil, full-art Game Day promo is a perfect representation of what this mana-conjuring priest should look like. The idea of it being Desperate Ritual on a creature really comes through.


When my buddy and I first returned to Magic after college, we started a tradition of getting each “Christmas Cards.” It wasn’t meant to be expensive, but something useable, shiny, promotional, or a bit weird. This copy of Lightning Greaves was one such gift, and the fantastic art by Michael Kormack has found a good home in this deck.

I’m still not decided on this even as I write this article. I like both copies of Rakdos Signet, albeit for different reasons, and they both come in foil and fit the deck aesthetically. I do know the location of the original painting for the version by Martina Pilcerova; if it were to make its way into my collection in the future that would certainly solve the dilemma. For now I’ve been running the original Hildebrandt art.

I wasn’t playing when the second cycle of Swords were printed during Magic’s return to Mirrodin, but I was when the Modern Event deck, conveniently including Sword of Feast and Famine, was released. The original Chris Rahn art is what I’ll be using for now, but the Steven Belledin Masterpiece Invention will be the ultimate goal. It’s one of my favorite Masterpieces—just look at that hilt!

I remember opening up Teferi’s Puzzle Box during 8th Edition and not really knowing what to make of it. Fast forward however many years later, and the wonderful Donato Giancola art is there bringing back memories from summers of cracking booster packs. I own every edition of this card with his art, and hope to grab some signatures at Illuxcon in October.

It feels weird to not really have interacted much with Ashnod’s Altar outside of this deck; but being one of the more fun/important pieces, I decided to go with the original art by Anson Maddocks. If the opportunity arises, I’ll upgrade this Chronicles to an Antiquities version. And if the deck ever moves towards being fully foiled, the Greg Staples version from Eternal Masters will also be a welcome edition.

Enchantments, Instants & Sorceries

My journey into collecting original Magic art has created many new friendships with artists and collectors alike. Artist Carl Critchlow has become a good friend and pen pal through art and antiques; we talk every week and have for over a year now. His Phyrexian Arena art is the one I associate with the card, and the Commander version with the new card frame and hologram is exactly what I like a Magic card to look like.

This newer Victimize art by Craig J. Spearing is literally set in a dungeon. This doesn’t make it an auto-include, but it certainly fits the flavor of the deck, and this is the art I chose to stay on point.

This was one of the hardest decisions, as there are not only several exceptional arts for Terminate since its original Planeshift printing, but a bunch of different editions and foilings as well. I stuck with the OG diTerlizzi for now, but would love to grab a FNM promo from 2006, in foil and in the new card frame. Honestly, any of these would be just fine by me. They’re all great.

While the original art for Diabolic Tutor is set in something like a dungeon, the Greg Staples Ramsey Bolton-looking fellow in the art is exactly what this deck is looking for. It’s also exactly the face I’m making as I search up something spicy to play or the second half of a combo.

The Next 3

These cards are on the shortlist to add, but I just haven’t gotten around to picking up a copy of them yet. When I do, this is what I’ll be looking at.

Truth told, as I was writing I realized I had the Duel Decks: Anthology version of Demonic Tutor and just hadn’t been playing with it. Who knew. I’ll be running this copy until such a time as I can add the Daarken Judge Promo, which is incredible. Daarken is one of my very favorite artists, and you can certainly see why here.

Vampiric Tutor is another card I have never owned. The fact that it’s been reprinted twice in Eternal Masters and as a 2018 Judge Promo has certainly made it more accessible. The Raymond Swanland version is scary good, but if I can find the Lucas Graciano Judge Promo, I think I can make a solid argument that this guy’s office is down the hall from Grenzo.

Zack Stella just recently reimagined Imperial Recruiter for Masters 25; and his rendition is stunning, from the expression of the figure to the super sharp details in the background. This would be my first go-to, though the original art by Mitsuaki Sagiri housed in the new card frame and in foil for the 2013 Judge promo would provide some original flavor with a bit of new flare. That will be a decision to make once I find them.

Wrapping Up

I hope you enjoyed looking inside my MTG art-focused brain as I crafted my latest Commander deck. I say it just about every article, but interacting with the art on the cards and those that created it will enrich your experience with Magic beyond what you could imagine. The next time you’re building a Commander deck, take a couple seconds to look at all the different art options. You may find it more fun than you think.

Looking forward into the next few months, I’ve got an art analysis piece, a Vintage Artist Constructed deck (or two), as well as a full Illuxcon Preview and Recap planned on my schedule. I’ll be attending Illuxcon 11 in Reading, PA October 17-21, 2018 with 40 different past and present Magic artists. Want to know who and what is going to be there and why you should be too? Keep your eyes here and stay tuned.

Remember, to see original #mtgart, follow me on Twitter. Feel free to ask questions or retweet to continue the conversation. Thanks and see you next time!

Donny Caltrider has been playing Magic since 2002 and collecting original Magic art since 2017. He has an M.A. in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University and enjoys telling stories about art, objects, and the intersection of fantasy with real-life. You can find him on Twitter talking about #mtgart, museums, and other #vorthos related goodness. Follow along and continue the conversation!

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