Good morning, and welcome back to the Mirror Gallery on this Thanksgiving Thursday. To those of you here in the States celebrating, I wish you the happiest of holidays with your family or friends, and hopefully this art-infused article can serve as a healthy appetizer or after-dinner (pre-nap!) dessert.

For those of you returning to the column you already know this, but for anyone new; I like basic lands a whole lot, and hold them as one of the greatest narrative components in all of Magic. This article, like the one before it, was inspired after working with fellow Hipsters of the Coast writer Ryan Sainio on an article about our favorite Planeswalker art. John Dale Beety’s 2018 article On Swamps can also be credited as an inspiration.

Islands, Ahoy!

Our overall goal is to highlight our favorite of each basic land type, and Ryan and I are eventually going to do this with each of the five (and maybe some other categories as well). For this entry, I’ve scoured the hundreds of options to find my twelve favorite Islands; whether it’s their artistic mastery, those that I feel tell the best stories, or those lands that I’m most likely to play in one of my themed Commander decks.

Having been around the game for the last fifteen years, I’ve seen lots of lands come and go, and I’m very excited to tell you about those I enjoy most. We won’t have any new basics until Theros: Beyond Death early next year, so it’s another great time to take a look at a large chunk of what we already have. Without further ado, I invite you to join me for this second installment in the Mirror Gallery Curator’s Choice: Identifying Islands.

At a Glance: Basic Island

Taking a look at Scryfall, there have been 204 unique illustrations of Basic Island as of Throne of Eldraine, and those have been printed 504 different times between paper, promos, and Magic Online. This is very similar to what we saw for Basic Plains.

The word ‘island” evokes a particular aesthetic, and everyone probably has a certain image that jumps into their head when considering “what is an island?” For some, maybe it’s Mark Poole’s classic Alpha sunset Island, one of the first in the game:

Island by Mark Poole. Traditional.

For others, it may be Alayna Danner’s newer Standard Showdown Island, a quintessential take on how we expect an Island to look, but set somewhere in a perfect fantasyland:

Island by Alayna Danner. Digital.

Whichever of these arts resonate with you more, Islands hold a very special place in Magic. They’ve been illustrated both as we’ve seen above, as well as completely abstract, all depending on their location. No two are really even remotely the same, and this article takes a look at a little bit of everything. Blue is one of my go-to colors in playing Magic, so identifying my favorite Islands was decidedly harder than anticipated. As always, these are in no particular order. Let’s begin!

Island #237 (Zendikar) by Vincent Proce

Island #237 (Zendikar) by Vincent Proce. Digital.

Let’s start with Bowl Island. Zendikar allowed for some very different depictions of basic lands, and Vincent Proce’s “Bowl Island” was an instant hit with players and collectors alike. Bowl Island is what you would expect a waterfall to be on Zendikar; a misshapen floating rock formation that functions very well within what we expect of the Island aesthetic, only floating in the air.

Proce uses scale birds (top right) to show the sheer size of the bowl, and the under-lighting reflects the heaviness and massive weight of these structures. I’m still working on my foil playset of these, but this land will always be in the conversation of Magic’s best and most popular basics.

Island #254 (Kaladesh) by Yeong-Hao Han

Island #254 (Kaladesh) by Yeong-Hao Han. Digital.

This may be the very basic land that triggered my fascination with foil basic lands. Called “swirly island” when I would ask folks and my LGS about it, the spinning pools are perfectly representative of the curved aesthetic that makes up the plane of Kaladesh, and in foil the card is really a sight to see.

While it’s probably just my own nostalgia, the tilted perspective and overall composition reminds me of family beach vacation—as if this was a place I’ve been, or simply how I remembered it. It’s unlike any other (save for the other Kaladesh Island by Han), and the combination of curvature and perspective make it one of a kind. For me, this is one of the lands that started it all, and was my personal point of departure for basic exploration.

Island #287 (Lorwyn) by Ron Spears

Island #287 (Lorwyn) [with Swamp #291 (Lorwyn)] by Ron Spears. Traditional.

Ron Spears is one of those artists who didn’t do a lot of lands, but when he did, they were ones that would become longtime favorites with the community. This Island from Lorwyn is one of the most popular diptychs in all of Magic, perhaps even one of the most sought after basics in the game, and we can instantly see why.

The spectrum of colors to depict the flora and fauna of Lorwyn is unique to these lands alone—in no other island is there as much bright and varying color. Spears has made a tropical paradise within the card frame, and an incredibly unique work that has stood the test of time as one of the best for more than a decade.

Island #251 (Battlebond) by Titus Lunter

Island #251 (Battlebond) by Titus Lunter. Digital.

When these lands were previewed for Battlebond, the artist himself suggested that they be called “smash lands.” Even though Magic can’t officially do crossovers, the aesthetic from Pokemon Stadium and Super Smash Bros. is apparent and fantastic. These lands are so perfectly fitting for the world of Valor’s Reach and the Battlebond set, and the Island is my favorite among them. He captures the evolution of the stadium as it is still in motion, the movement, in both earth and water in tandem, as the land rises from the ground. Titus has become known for his Magic landscapes, and this cycle is a triumph in form and flavor.

Oh, and one last thing. Do you see those two little birds there on the edge? That’s Titus (and his now wife) fellow Magic illustrator Suzanne Helmigh. Battlebond is about teamwork, and this Easter Egg that appears in all five lands immortalizes their teamwork and partnership commitment to each other. How awesome is that?!

Island #256 (Dominaria) by Dimitar Marinski

Island #256 (Dominaria) by Dimitar Marinski. Digital.

While this may seem to be a non-descript, underwater scene of a lost city functioning as a Dominarian Island, again there is more than meets the eye. This scene is actually visible on another card: Slinn Voda, the Rising Deep—it’s the city on the behemoth’s back! According to Art Director Mark Winters, “the island came before the fish”—but nevertheless I love the relationship between these two cards.

It’s not very often you can have a Commander and also play “their” particular land. If you’re building Slinn Voda for 1DH, you now know what basics you have to find.

Island #286 (Shadowmoor) by Omar Rayyan

Island #286 (Shadowmoor) [with Plains #282 (Shadowmoor)] by Omar Rayyan. Traditional.

Another one of Magic’s fabulous diptych basic lands, I remember seeing this Island for the first time at the Shadowmoor prerelease and being blown away: it was something radically different, yet still read unquestionably as (and visibly is) an Island. Fast forward ten years, and it’s still one of my favorites both in nostalgia and with an incredible appreciation for the artistic mastery of Omar Rayyan. Shadowmoor is one of my favorite sets, and Rayyan’s work on both Lorwyn and Shadowmoor is a large part of what made them so special.

This painting is currently not for sale, residing in a private collection. Maybe one day in the future it makes it onto my wall? It could happen.

Island #256 (Magic 2015) by Peter Mohrbacher

Island #256 (Magic 2015) by Peter Mohrbacher.

This is Mohrbacher’s only basic land for Magic, and appearing in a non-style-guided Core Set allowed him to exercise something a bit different into this landscape. His work here emits a not often seen science-fiction vibe within the fantasy culture of the game; it is a literal island, yes, but is rising from the water as if it can fly (and maybe it can?).

The sci-fi nature and flying landscape of this work isn’t something we get very often (outside of a plane like Zendikar where it’s part of the story), and the streaming waterfalls that reinforce this feeling of flight are one of Mohrbacher’s signature artistic elements. I recently got a handful of these signed, and can’t wait to find the right Commander deck to play them.

Island #38 (Premium Deck Series: Slivers) by Randy Gallegos

Island #38 (Premium Deck Series: Slivers) by Randy Gallegos. Traditional.

Randy Gallegos did exactly four basic lands over his career with the game that started all the way back in 1995, each an Island for the Tempest expansion of 1997. Of those, this is the only one to see a second printing, and is my favorite among them for its beautiful simplicity.

I got to see this original painting a year or so ago; it’s very small but no detail is lost, from the texture of the rocks to the crashing of the waves. I have a signed set of the Premium Deck Series: Slivers printing in foil because they just look so good, and I play them in my mono-blue Randy Gallegos Vintage Artist Constructed deck.

Island #255 (War of the Spark) by Kirsten Zirngibl

Island #255 (War of the Spark) by Kirsten Zirngibl. Digital.

This is one of my favorite artworks from War of the Spark, and I had a chance to ask Kirsten a few questions when I met her at Illuxcon a few weeks ago. She submitted two sketches, one looking up at the tower (a la Hallowed Fountain) and then this birds-eye view. This perspective is decidedly harder, having to illustrate everything happening on the ground as opposed to just clouds and sky, but she was able to do this one (the one she really wanted to) and absolutely nailed it. One of the only birds-eye views within Ravnica, this painting stands out as an superb Island, a stellar basic land, and sensational overall piece of Magic art.

PS- Her prints are done in both a foil mask or you can get them in metal, and look unbelievably cool; just like the card is printed in foil. I think she only has them at conventions, but if your paths cross you must check them out. I should have gotten a few; next time for sure.
(Image 9a)- Zirngibl

Island #213 (Unstable) by John Avon

Island #213 (Unstable) by John Avon, acrylic and airbrush. Private Collection.

The legendary Magic Artist John Avon reprised his Unhinged full-art lands with another cycle in 2017’s Unstable. They were an incredible hit just like their predecessors, and for good reason. This land has it all: rolling waves, mysterious mist, scale birds, and the incredible spiraling island itself that corkscrews from the deep and into the blue sky. Avon’s hues of blue here are breathtaking; this is simply a beautiful landscape.

As an aside, this was also a rare traditional work from Avon. The collecting community responded with resounding attention; it sold in 2018 for $20,000. Each of these five Unstable lands has a sketch and painting, but we’ve yet to see any of the rest of them surface for sale.

Island #257 (Throne of Eldraine) by Mark Poole

Island #257 (Throne of Eldraine) by Mark Poole.

A late edition to this lineup (because it just came out), Mark Poole’s “Wishing Well” Island for Throne of Eldraine has jumped straight into my Top 12. It’s not very often you can take an entire piece of folklore and illustrate it into a landscape, but that’s exactly what we have here.

In myth, the wishing well is a sacred, secluded place, and Poole gives us that same feeling with the trellis and vine enclosure that creates a window along the edge of the artwork. We peer in to see this very special site, dancing with will-o’-the-wisp and faerie lights, as an island of its own; it’s a lovely addition to this set of fairytale, and a land I’m going to play for quite some time.

Island #B2 (RNA Ravnica Weekend) by Alayna Danner

Island #B2 (RNA Ravnica Weekend) by Alayna Danner. Digital.

I included Alayna’s Azorius Plains in my Picking Plains article, and her accompanying Island also comes in my Top 12 when looking at this basic land type. I’m a sucker for diptychs as you well know by now; and this piece, both each side individually and as one painting, is nothing short of stunning. From the cascading waterfalls to the beaming sunlight, this Island is the law and order in architecture we expect from the Azorius, representative of the grandeur and power of New Prahv. It reads beautifully at both card size and full size, and is one of my favorite Ravnica illustrations across all three blocks and all nine sets. I just love this painting.

Wrapping Up

I hope you enjoyed this little dive through just 6% of the Islands in Magic’s history. The vast array of Island illustrations show the sheer breadth and diversity of Magic illustration, and illuminate why Magic has some of the very best artwork in the entire genre. There were so many more pieces of art I wanted to talk about, so if I missed one of your favorites, jump on over to Twitter to tell me which Island you like best and share an image of the art.

Ryan Sainio has article of his favorites coming out today as well, so make sure to keep on the lookout for that too. And finally, to peruse all the basic lands of Magic, I must recommend two places. Scryfall (t:basic, unique:art) is fantastic for sorting by set and artist, and Basic Land Art is perfect for themes and planes. Once a Tumblr and now a website, Rachel keeps Basic Land Art up to date with each new basic land and lots of different ways to search and group them. Check it out!

Next time in the Mirror Gallery we’re looking at my Magic Artist Wishlist; a handful of artists whose work I’ve seen over this past year that I think would work wonderfully on a card and find a fitting home within the multiverse. It’s the first time I’ve ever written about non-Magic art as it would fit in the game, so make sure to stop by to have a look.

Remember, to see original #mtgart and other #vorthos related things, 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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