With War of the Spark on the horizon, boasting three dozen planeswalkers, we turn our focus to the planeswalker card type. One of my favorite parts of planeswalkers is how often we get to see their depictions on cards. It’s always nice to see a legendary creature reinterpreted when we visit their home plane, but major planeswalkers provide so many more touch points. And as marquee cards, planeswalkers are given some of the most impressive pieces of art in their set.

With that and a sense of history in mind, I wanted to look at the planeswalkers originating in Lorwyn, plus current archvillain Nicol Bolas, to determine their best artistic depictions. Since we all know that art is objective, it will be easy to point to the best art for each planeswalker without a Shadow of Doubt.

Ajani Steadfast

I was very close to choosing Ajani, Mentor of Heroes—it’s beautiful. But whereas my criteria for the most objectively awesome art for each Planeswalker will prove to be consistently inconsistent, in my eyes Ajani Steadfast is the perfect capturing of an emotional chapter in the Magic story. For those unaware this is the depiction of Ajani following Theros block and in the art he is wearing Elspeth’s cape. I believe this cape makes an appearance in future pieces, but the realization of how the art was carrying on the current lore struck me back in 2014.

For those not playing at the time of Journey into Nyx, the revelation that Elspeth was going to die at the hands of Heliod was extremely controversial. She was the one Planeswalker who had been through so much and was really just trying to find a place to lay down her sword and finally retire. She was a powerful female icon of the game and her passing brought a wave of distraught to her fans. To see Ajani carrying on her memory was equally powerful and a nice touch to an already beautiful piece.

Chandra Ablaze

In the Magic lore pre-Battle for Zendikar, the one word I would have used to define Chandra was “emotion.” It’s possible that even now her strongest trait is her emotion, but I believe that she’s less driven that fundamental force. In Chandra Ablaze we get the character at her most emotionally charged. She is aggressive, driven, and fierce, all qualities I feel have been lacking from her art since she learned to dial it back a little bit and use her powers more precisely as she’s traveled with the Gatewatch.

It’s hard to look at her Chandra, Torch of Defiance incarnation—whether done by Magali Villeneuve or Terese Nielsen—and not think those are the best we’ve seen of the character. They are stunning in their own ways, but I don’t think they really capture the upper limits of Chandra at her most alive. There is motion in Chandra Ablaze’s art, something that is missing in a lot of other planeswalker art, as the characters stand posed to give you the best look at them without being too distracting. Maybe it’s the Commander player in me—because she’s pretty great to have in Commander—but when I think of Chandra, I think of this impassioned incarnation.

Garruk, the Veil-Cursed

Garruk was hard. Throwing no shade at the artists or the art direction of the cards, but much of his art comes off looking the same. The From the Vault: Transform piece done by Grzegorz Rutkowski shows the character in his aggressively vindictive state after running afoul of Liliana just before Innistrad block better than all other depictions. I like Garruk, Apex Predator, it’s moody and honestly a great bit unnerving. But this more exaggerated and cartoony style is a fresh breath of air compared to the rigid depictions of this primal hunter. The purple in his veins and eyes show the influence of The Chain Veil and give a powerful contrast to the dark mood around him.

As one of the first wave of planeswalkers, Garruk is important to the history of Magic even if he isn’t important to the current story. While we know that we won’t be seen a new Planeswalker card for Garruk in War of the Spark, I’m hoping that he does make an appearance in the story or that our next mini arc might include the character to give us another glimpse at where he is. I look forward to future interpretations of Garruk, either as a villian or antihero.

Jace Beleren

Possibly the biggest upset of my entire list is Jace. While Jace, the Mind Sculptor is the image most strongly tied to Jace, it is one of my least liked depictions of the planeswalker because of how stiff Jace looks in piece. Aleksi Briclot is a fantastic artist and a perfect pick to capture all five of the original Lorwyn planeswalkers, and he gave us the definitive Jace. It’s easy to say that other versions capture him in a story moment better like Jace, Cunning Castaway or Jace, Unraveler of Secrets; but in this piece we get everything we need to know.

In typical Aleksi style, Jace is shown in a near-featureless void that works here because it further encapsulates the mystery of the character. Shrouded in shadows, bringing his hand up to cast some kind of spell against his unseen foe or attacker; this piece defined how many Magic players envisioned themselves as they got into the mindset of the game. This was a wonderful piece, spurred on by excellent art direction and concepting.

Liliana, Death’s Majesty

Likely the most divisive of my pics, I own up to the fact that Liliana of the Veil is easily the most iconic depiction of the character. But I don’t believe that is the best piece of art. I also have a bias, as I don’t especially like the purple glowing necromancer incarnations of Liliana. It makes her feel less human, which is admittedly a strong part of the character. This queen of the zombies interpretation is simply the best visual depiction of Liliana.

As those who have seen the War of the Spark trailer know, Liliana ain’t doing so well. But the depiction of Liliana present on Liliana, Death’s Majesty is a character in her prime. Surrounded by zombie servants, the use of light, and detail in her dress and boots. The whole package is impactful and a marvel to see. This is the least bleak of all the Liliana art. While I don’t entirely care for the character, it’s nice to see her living her best days.

Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker

There is something so pure about this depiction before Nicol Bolas became the power-hungry, mastermind god-pharaoh that he is now. That’s not to say that he hasn’t always craved the power he once had before The Mending. The use of lighting in this piece creates a single, iconic silhouette of one of Magic’s greatest villains. That dark outline speaks more volumes to me than him menacingly conjuring up magic ever could. It’s also important to remember that this is where the modern Nicol Bolas look originated, with the Gem of Becoming, foreshortened face, and gold ornamental armor. Even the heavy use of yellows works as a contrast to what see on other planeswalker cards—ironically yellows are used heavily on some Ajani cards, a character in direct opposition to Bolas.

It’s funny how in a few cases Wizards can capture a character perfectly with their first appearance on a planeswalker card. While other interpretations of the elder dragon exist before and after Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker saw print, the D. Alexander Gregory piece is iconic.

What is your favorite piece of art depicting today’s planeswalkers? Obviously my declaration, that art is objective, is ludicrous. But luckily that opens up the discussion as to what really is the best art for any given card. My hope is that this article can be the first in a long list of light-hearted and respectful discussions about the best art whether it be of a particular character or of a heavily reprinted card. Thank you.

Ryan Sainio is a Graphic Designer who writes about EDH, the EDH community, and streams on Twitch in his down time. He has been playing Magic: The Gathering since 7th Edition in 2002 and values flavorful and fun gameplay over competitively optimized decks. Join him for a stream at twitch.tv/hipstersainio on Tuesday nights.

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