The Art of Magic: The Gathering / An Introduction to Dragons

Black Dragon by Mark Zug

Dragons are among the most recognisable and badass tropes in the games, literature and art of fantasy. Magic: The Gathering is no exception to the cool-as-fuck dragon rule and from the 245 dragon type cards you can find on Gatherer, this article contains a small but lovingly curated selection of some of the best looking and most fun to play with.

Ancestor Dragon by Shinchuen Chen is a great place to start, as the classic Chinese dragon shape is reimagined with modern rendering techniques to create an utterly epic representation of Chinese mythology in a game that increasingly seeks to embrace non-western fantasy tropes.

The flavour text reads: 

It is said that Yinglong gave birth to the qilin and the phoenix, and after them, all the hairy and winged beings in the world. Thus it is known as the Ancestor Dragon.

Yinglong is one of the most ancient dragons in Chinese mythology and the history of this specific dragon can be traced through time further than most to pre-Han dynasty times. Texts reference this specific dragon as far back as the third century BCE and the Formosan peoples of Taiwan also mention Ying-lung in their creation myth as a maker of riverbeds through the wiggling of their eel-like body. 

The flavour text not only references the status of Yinglong as one of the most ancient dragons, but also cleverly alludes to their status as a progenitor of emperors through parthenogenesis in some written accounts. The qilin are single horned beasts in Chinese mythology that would appear at the birth or death of great emperors or sages. The inclusion of such specific mythological references within a fantasy game that could easily have focused solely on western folklore is wonderful.

Catacomb Dragon by David O’Connor is the perfect embodiment of a classical western fantasy dragon. It looks like the cover of a sword and sorcery book series that ends up dominating one of the quiet summers of your early childhood. 

The scaled, three-clawed beast has the more serpentine body and webbed wings of the two-legged wyvern. Etymologically the word wyvern is derived from the Latin word vipera, meaning ‘adder’ or ‘viper’, and the diamond patterned scales on the Catacomb Dragon are not unlike that of the adder species native to Europe.

This card was released in the Mirage set of 1996, and so is considerably older than a lot of the art styles most commonly played with today. The vintage colours and art style have aged wonderfully and evoke much of what is great about old and new fantasy art.

The Ur-Dragon by Justine Jones is a move away from tradition and into the more abstract realms of draconic representation. The lo-fi warmth of the background colours and warping lines throw diminished spired mountains into a sharp contrast as the colourful Ur-Dragon perches atop them in a pose that threatens to suddenly leap at you.

Jones’ acidic coloured art would be comfortable sitting on the cover of an underground cult LP. Her spiked creations elaborately pierce melting art-nouveau compositions and borders in an oeuvre writhing with chimeric beasts and menacing warlocks.

The original art for Nicol Bolas, Dragon God by Matt Stewart sold at auction for $35,000 in 2019. The traditionally painted piece was worked with oil on Ampersand cradled gesso board. After painting more than 160 magic cards this was Stewart’s first planeswalker commission, and it performed almost as powerfully as the card itself in-game.

Planeswalker cards function as additional players and despite often unruly casting costs can be some of the most powerful cards in the game. Each character often has a long and complex backstory that is expanded upon as future iterations of the cards come out. Nicol Bolas for example has a brother called Ugin, another of the most competitively powerful dragons in the game.

Ugin the Ineffable by Mike “Daarken” Lim is one of the versions of Ugin that, though not as powerful as Ugin the Spirit Dragon, is one of the prettier depictions of the pastel infused glowing dragon. Ugin’s feathered wings are more angelic than that of Nicol Bolas, yet the ominous quality of those horns and desolate surroundings lend an eerily demonic cast to the image.

Much like Yinglong, the first dragon in this series, Ugin birthed the dragons that now rule the plane of Tarkir through elemental storms. The water and creation association is once more traditionally Chinese. Ugin and Bolas were both born at once from a single egg spawned from the Ur-Dragon, and together they navigated the multi-verse until Bolas betrayed Ugin in a ploy for power. Ugin went on to focus on the wonders and knowledge contained within the multi-planed universe and Bolas obsessed with seeking revenge over the slaughter of his sister by attaining power and cheating death.

This is only a small snapshot of the hundreds of dragons that circle the many-winged realms of Magic: The Gathering. Myriad powerful and interesting creatures of this ilk slink through the mythos of the game and perhaps one day they too will be gushed over by your humble author.

All MtG artworks are property of Wizards of the Coast, used in accordance with the Fan Content Policy.

Words: Nina Saeidi (Lowen)

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