In recent years, Magic: the Gathering has offered Commander players many unique experiences to enhance the game—the creation of fresh new card types, mechanics, strategies, and, dare I say, “power levels.” Tapping creatures to crew Vehicles like Consulate Dreadnought enabled a new way to turn creatures sideways. Mutating Commanders such as Nethroi, Apex of Death allowed players to amplify creatures’ abilities while retaining the inherent beastly modes of already powerful creatures. Modal Double-Faced Cards (MDFCs) presented a choice between two modes as they are played, essentially netting you the possibility of having a second card, or even more as in the case of Valakut Awakening // Valakut Stoneforge, for the price of one. Partner Commanders have enabled combinations to build the ideal color identity would not be possible otherwise—Vial Smasher the Fierce and Thrasios, Triton Hero come to mind. The overwhelming use of Treasure token generators like Dockside Extortionist and Smothering Tithe presented a new challenge to players, forcing them to unearth older cards like Corrosion or Energy Flux to prevent Treasures from being used on later turns. What a time to be alive!
I want to shift away from gameplay for a moment and draw your attention to an aspect of Magic that has provided yet another unique experience for our format’s players. This experience involves the allure of playing with alternate artwork versions of our favorite cards. By no means is the concept new—we’ve seen different card arts on pre-release foils, FNM promos, reprints, and in more recent years, Expeditions, Invocations, Masterpieces, and Secret Lair products. Alongside these developments over the last decade, are the increased number of hand-painted versions by “alters artists”. Upon request, these artists modify the original art on the card and replace it with fan artwork of any type that suits a client’s request. Hand-painted alters gives Commander players a unique experience by personalizing their decks, providing visually captivating encounters, and also brings different life to the game.
In 2021, I combined my position on the CAG with my position at Sablan MTG Alters (a.k.a. The Painter’s Servant on Twitch), and organized a fun project involving 16 different hand-painted alters by 16 different artists worldwide, one for each member of the CAG and RC. I was able to round up a number of these artists from across the globe to create art for each of the RC’s and CAG’s favorite Commanders. Holding these cards, we can very easily see that personalizing a commander brings something unique to its owner.
How personal? Take a look at three alters done on Karador, Ghost Chieftain by Luke Emmerton of Luey Dragons MTG Alters, Cromat by Sally Stokes of S2 Alters, and Breya, Etherium Shaper by Brandon Brown of Modfly Alters. Luke and Sally did a phenomenal job recreating Sheldon and Josh Lee Kwai’s portraits. The recreation of Olivia Gobert-Hicks’ favorite Commander is one that speaks to her profession as a jeweler, with Jet, Ruby, Sapphire and Pearl jewels to match Breya’s color identity!
In personalizing three alters done on Zedruu, the Greathearted by Catherine Berthiaume of Level Up Alters, Kozilek, the Great Distortion by Eddie James of Djsteps Alter, and Titania, Protector of Argoth by Kumi Kanda Yoshino of Sablan MTG Alters, each of the artists took into consideration some of the recipients’ interests and incorporated reference material in their works. Recall the Magic Lampoon article “It is the Will of Zedruu” that Toby Elliott is very fond of, and how the references in the alter include goblins, a parking ticket, a sandwich, and of course Howling Mine. And then there’s Rachel Agnes, whose outside Magic interests include the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Shivam Bhatt whose anime and manga interests include Oh! My Goddess as seen below:
Professional Alters Artists take pride in their handpainted renditions and no matter what side you are on a battlefield encounter, seeing their alters can be breathtaking. In stating that, an artist’s expertise is easily misunderstood by most players; any of these artists will tell you that painting on a 2.5” x 3.5” canvas is nothing to laugh at, and many hours goes into every alteration. These artists leverage many tools to strive for perfection, such as extreme detail, thinness of paint, likeness of reference, variety and matching of colors, all in service of the recipient’s desired intent on a flat surface. Take, for instance, the below works on Yidris, Maelstrom Wielder by Michiko Kanda Sablan of Sablan MTG Alters, Nin, the Pain Artist by Toriy Abdel of Magic Fantasy, and on Arixmethes, Slumbering Isle by Marisa Capitao of Captain Magic Altered.
The Ydris alter is not unlike Marvel’s Wolverine as seen in this Jim Lee cover with Omega Red—Michiko’s foil embellishment on the adamantium and carbonadium parts is exquisite. Jim LaPage’s off-Magic pastime is in playing Legend of the Zelda video games, and Toriy did a splendid job trying to capture as many of the game’s characters on the canvas — the detail looks excruciating! On the right, Scott Larabee’s ever-dreadful Kraken is a beautiful rendition of a card he once designed and plays often on the RC’s twitch stream. Marisa use of tromp l’oeil and color contrast conveys a unique sense of magnitude and grandeur. Imagine if there was an actual octopus of that size! Achieving these levels of excitement is always a goal for professional alters artists.
The last facet of hand-painted altered artwork I want to capture is how each individual alter on a card, within the 99 or at the helm, brings life to a Commander game. While alters already provide enhanced visual appeal, they also have the ability to draw out its owner’s passion and its deck’s purpose. As I continued to work with each of the alters artists in this project, the artists were able to communicate with the RC and CAG and articulate their desires to the team. The typical process when commissioning an alter is for a client to either be very specific about what is desired on a card, or allow the artist to use their own imagination to paint what they believe is requested. At the end of the process, both the artist and the client should be satisfied with the new art — any artist who considers this to be a profession will work hard to spark joy for their clients. In that respect, the below are the remaining original hand-painted works as interpreted by the artists in their respective styles:
Catherine Chandler-Tressler of her Alter Lab completed Adam Styborski’s Slimefoot, the Stowaway as a border extension with Saproling images added to the front of the ability box. Michelle Lizak of Mllizavx MTG Alters was requested by Charlotte Sable to redraw Alesha, Who Smiles at Death as if she were reaching into the abyss of creatures that may have been previously Buried Alive. Michael Beausoleil of MRB Alters took Rachel Week’s personal love of Pheldagriff and gave it a Dr. Seuss flavor in art and prose!
Jom Semah of Jom Alters transformed DeQuan Watson’s Rith, the Awakener using his personal vibrant color style and shading while highlighting the dragon’s ability to create Saprolings in the form of petals. Istvan Bukovski of Art Dark envisioned for Elizabeth Rice a new take on Memnarch—with a Phyrexian-like, sinister look which as lore has told, was a result of a Mirari incarnation driven mad by a mysterious oil that he is holding in his hand. Maria Sondergaard Petersen of MSJ Alters MTG Art reproduced her signature, and always surreal, pastel color palette onto Kristen Gregory’s Aurelia, the Warleader. Lastly, Annalisa Forghieri of Shivan Altered Art, went above and beyond and took on the challenge of doing a double-sided full art replacement for Gavin Duggan’s Avacyn Avacyn // Avacyn, the Purifier. She then challenged herself even further by applying a stained glass technique to both sides, fully accentuating the ethereal flavor of the devastatingly beautiful angel.
If you are not already familiar with altered artwork in Commander, hopefully this gives you a peek into the why and the how. Gameplay aside, the Commander experience continues to change but players will always find a passion for their decks and enjoy their Commanders in different ways. Altering cards helps set the foundation for a personalized and unique build, enables a visually captivating experience, and breathes imaginative life into the game we all love. As we often say, Commander isn’t necessarily about winning. Rather, it is a game where a social contract exists to allow players to enjoy the game in many ways. Having altered artwork, especially on the Commander, is one way method of calling attention to the card at the helm.
In closing, I would like to express special thanks again to all of the alters artists who painted such wonderful works. For more information on the artists, contact information, and worldwide locations spanning Asia, Europe, Australia, and North America, feel free to see visit the official Commander website gallery for the images here.