However you look at it, 2020 has been one hell of a ride. I’m glad that the Magic release schedule slowed down a little over this month — we needed time to reflect.
No single facet of Magic illustrates the 2020 approach to Magic releases quite like promo cards. The number and range of alternate-art and alternate-frame printings exploded compared to previous years, offering an official alternative to popular but expensive fan-alters. Many of these printings showed increased attention paid to the profile of Magic’s artists, inviting them to cut loose with signature styles and celebrating these vital contributors to the game and its aesthetic.
So let’s take a quick visual trip down memory lane and revisit the most stunning and appealing promo printings of the past twelve months. Who knows, maybe you’ll catch some hidden gems you missed the first time around!
Before the first sets of the year could even release, WotC’s promo team were already foreshadowing the coming storm. January’s announcement of judge foils focused on a “tutors” theme, reprinting some of the oldest and most powerful eternal staples with creative new art. This selection shows off all that promos can offer: Sterling Grove updates a quaint original artwork, while Arena Rector creatively emphasizes its in-game abilities with visual ties to Elspeth.
A special shoutout to Gamble, which thematically connects with not only the older Eternal Masters artwork, but a lineage of ruby eyes and deadly statues in fantasy art stretching all the way back to David A. Trampier’s beloved cover for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook!
A big early highlight for the year was the reveal of Chris Seaman’s jaw-dropping Path to Exile full-art, which was announced as the MagicFest 2020 promo to build on the success of 2019’s Lighting Bolt. While many of us ended up missing out on the true MagicFest experience this year, this beautiful rendition of a multi-format staple made for a decent silver lining.
THEROS BEYOND DEATH
Theros felt like the real kickoff to the Magic year. I was writing a slew of set review articles, WotC was getting ready for the new Standard rotation, and we got our sophomore experience with Collector Boosters and their associated fancy promos!
One thing I appreciate about the broad scope of promos in 2020 is how it gave WotC the chance to experiment with art direction and show us more novel or abstract concepts for a card’s subject. The “statue” Planeswalkers and “starfield” showcase promos were great examples of this, emphasizing the unique aesthetic traits of Theros and incorporating the colors of each card in new, interesting ways.
But it was the matching basic land set which made the biggest splash among players I knew. Whether they reminded you of Pokemon energy cards or just offered a cleaner alternative to traditional landscape illustrations, the takeaway seems clear: promos with unique visual styles are what really appeal to the playerbase!
IKORIA: LAIR OF BEHEMOTHS
Promos were big news in Ikoria spoiler season, as Magic unveiled its first-ever pop culture crossover in a black-bordered set. Godzilla and friends got a dazzling debut by way of some beautiful promo cards, while still allowing less enthusiastic players to forge ahead with the “standard” Ikoria artwork and names.
It set a great precedent for future tie-ins, and gave us some truly terrific art. Even without being a fan of monster movies Godzilla, Doom Inevitable, Biollante, Plant Beast Form and Battra, Dark Destroyer blew me away with their majestic intensity.
Simultaneously, the Secret Lair line came through with it’s coolest new lands yet: the Godzilla full-art basics! While I wish the Plains emphasized white a bit more to match the strong color palettes of the other four, these amazing basics have been providing mana for most of my MTG Arena matches since their release!
The Godzilla theme had a sneaky last hurrah in the form of Mechagodzilla, Battle Fortress — an alt-art Hangarback Walker released as a “Love Your LGS” promo. Apart from the chance to complete your set of official kaiju cards, this release also included a sweet new Reliquary Tower for all the Commander players to fawn over.
SIGNATURE SPELLBOOK: CHANDRA
CORE SET M21
This set again featured some lovely extended showcase promos for lucky pack-crackers to stumble across. My favorite was Solemn Simulacrum, depicting an enigmatic robot emerging to explore a harsh and sandy environment. It’s not easy taking on a card that already has four excellent illustrations associated with it, so credit to Joseph Meehan on this evocative piece!
There were also a few glamor options for the M21 Planeswalkers, of which Basri Ket’s full-art treatment was the clear standout. As a mono-white player, I was impressed by this new character’s strong aesthetic, and I wish this version were the more widely available one, because it shows off his powers and proud bearing all the better!
You know you’ve got an excellent set for promos when a reprint of the much-loved Unhinged basic land cycle goes almost forgotten alongside it! The promo artworks here were chosen perfectly, highlighting staple cards and adding new artwork that closely matches the stature they have gained in the minds of the players.
Cards like Kaalia of the Vast, Force of Will and Mark Tedin’s amazing Urzatron panorama deserve to look like epic bombs, and most of the artists hit that challenge out of the park. I think my overall favorite has to be Blightsteel Colossus, though — the original art is iconic, but very static. The promo here brings life, action, and intimidation to our favorite one-shot robot.
The final Standard set release for 2020 continued the hot streak for setting-specific showcase promos, much to the delight of the playerbase. The Zendikar Rising showcase frame with its ultra-intense color composition worked wonders for the various red and green cards selected for it — Moraug, Fury of Akoum, Valakut Exploration and Lotus Cobra among them.
I can’t stress enough how cool it is that WotC went out and designed different card frames for each plane we visited this year. One major concern with printing all these promos (and products!) is that each one will start to feel less special than it used to, or that they’ll start to lose the distinct character and flavor that fans love about Magic’s individual worlds. Set-specific showcase frames and strong unifying aesthetic choices like we see here are the antidote to that. To me, each one is like a window into an alternate timeline of Magic, treating us to glimpses of what the game could look like – something I haven’t really felt since Time Spiral block many years ago.
I wanted to highlight the white showcase cards in particular. Illustrations like Canyon Jerboa, Prowling Felidar and Fearless Fledgling really hit the spot of how I like to see color come together to make white cards pop without feeling “out of place.” Maybe these slightly more daring compositions won’t ever become the norm, but at least I’m happy to enjoy an alternative to the Felidar Retreat art from the set proper.
Commander is one of the premier formats for promos to shine, as players take advantage of its creative deck-building and non-rotating nature to bling out their favorite decks. So it makes sense that WotC chose this already massive set to debut the most impressive promos of the year: the new “etched foil” legends!
These promos benefit from a new foiling process, sparkling like burnished metal. It’s a significantly different effect to traditional foiling, vital for those who insist on standing out. It’s not hard to imagine etched foiling as the new normal for foil promo cards in the near future!
YEAR OF THE LAIR
The WotC department responsible for putting out Secret Lairs must be the toast of the office’s (virtual) holiday party. 2020 saw that product line transform from an offbeat experiment into a landmark of the community, culminating in a showstopping Secretversary multi-drop just in time for Christmas.
While I still hope to see some aspects of the product improved — including making them more accessible to players like me who live outside the US — it’s clear Secret Lair is here to stay. It’s hard to go over every 2020 drop in detail, but even a shortlist of my personal favorites offers an impressive cross-section of styles and staples: the metal-infused Decimate and Thraximundar, Seb McKinnon’s meticulously-planned Damnation, heartwarming new art for Consecrated Sphinx, the awesome composition on Admonition Angel, EVERY YARGLE CARD, dumpster-diving Scavenging Ooze, and of course, the beautiful monochrome Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni.
The targeted nature of Secret Lair drops has made it slow to catch on among players, but I suspect sooner or later one of these drops will get you the way the new heavy metal drop got me. But even if you’re steadfastly against paying a premium for these promos, it takes a real miserly outlook to rail against the philosophy behind them. Magic is a massive community, overlapping every other touchstone of art and popular culture; acknowledging and leaning into those diverse influences will cement Magic’s prominence and give even more new players a reason to get excited about our hobby.
But what’s coming up in 2021 for promo-loving players to get excited about? Obviously, we’re just beginning to learn about the look and feel of Kaldheim, which will be the first release of the new year — but we can deduce a few things.
Firstly, the “collector’s range” of promo-heavy booster packs and boutique Secret Lair drops will continue, and possibly expand again. WotC is gradually adjusting audience expectations around promo availability, such as by having extended-art versions of every rare. As all-promo decks become more possible, they will naturally become the goal for some players, which then fuels the cycle further.
These promos will also be more widely touted as a source of flavor and worldbuilding, allowing talented artists (or art directors) to define a chunk of the world’s visual flavor without restrictions. If Kaldheim doesn’t simply adapt the look of the metal-flavored Secretversary drop as its showcase “frame,” then I would wager we get some cool runic designs instead. These will likely be matched by promo lands, similar to how this year gave us full art Godzilla basics, individually-themed Jumpstart basics, Theros constellation basics and new Zendikar Rising Expeditions.
While the common fantasy tropes and themes visible in upcoming sets hint that 2021 could be Magic’s Year of Crossovers, I think WotC will go steadier following the Walking Dead controversy. But so long as they stick to promos and not original tournament cards, the future of fancy cards looks bright. And in a year where WotC could easily have their hands full trying to revive tournament play and keep LGSes afloat, it’s good to know that dark clouds could have an etched-foil lining.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include promo art from Kaldheim.
Tom’s fate was sealed in 7th grade when his friend lent him a pile of commons to play Magic. He quickly picked up Boros and Orzhov decks in Ravnica block and has remained a staunch white magician ever since. A fan of all Constructed formats, he enjoys studying the history of the tournament meta. He specializes in midrange decks, especially Death & Taxes and Martyr Proc. One day, he swears he will win an MCQ with Evershrike. Ask him how at @AWanderingBard, or watch him stream Magic at twitch.tv/TheWanderingBard.