Rebecca Guay has long been my favorite Magic card artist. In this series, I take a chronological tour through her artistic contributions to the game, examining every card she’s ever done to date, including some which never saw print. While her career as an illustrator is not limited to Magic card illustration, the artwork which appears on Magic cards and promotional material will be my primary focus in these pieces. However, I would encourage any fans of her Magic card illustrations to have a look at her other work. She’s illustrated for several other games, including Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft, various White Wolf RPGs, and some comic books. Much of her work is compiled at her website, rebeccaguay.com, where she also takes limited submissions for autographed cards.
Although I’m neither art critic nor historian by training, I will try to fake it as best I can. I am presenting each card with the full frame, as the card appeared in the original versions. I considered displaying the images alone, but concluded that part of this work of art is the card form it’s delivered on. The art is part of the card, and the card frames the art. Each must hang together with the other, for a truly sublime Magic-related aesthetic experience. And thus, through no fault of her own, some of the artist’s pieces will necessarily be more popular than others due merely to the relative excellence of the cards on which they appear. I shall try to make this distinction when evaluating the artistic merits of such iconic cards, though I can’t promise not to have my own biases. Enough ado, let’s dive in!
Guay’s work first appeared in the Alliances expansion, released in 1996. Most Guay collectors’ binders, therefore, begin with a humble and unassuming pair of Enslaved Scouts.
I’m glad that Guay got involved with Magic early enough to do a few of these alternate / multiple artwork cards. Here we see chained and collared goblins, reluctantly guiding their mounted captors.
The gruesome flavor text on the second version with the squatting goblin gives us a glimpse of the fate likely awaiting these poor souls. These are fairly straightforward pieces. Of the two, I favor the second, with the figure painting of the squatting scout more. As the opening page in my collection binder, Enslaved Scout has grown on me over the years.
Right off the bat, we have an example of the style Guay is known for. A beautiful, slender maiden with long hair and a flowing cloak, both in this case blowing in the wind. I’m taken by Kaysa’s sexy, almost aloof posture in this piece. She’s holding a spear in a way that suggests combat, but she doesn’t seem troubled by any potential adversary. Classic High Fantasy themes, but painterly and soft, not airbrushed and sharp. The cranes flying away along the line of her spear help flow your eyes around this picture.
To me, this is standard, classic Guay. An archetypal gorgeous-maiden-in-flowing-robes subject, with a majestic high fantasy mood. What’s interesting is that much of her early work varies from what ends up being the “Guay mold,” as we’ll see. There is terrific variety before she settles into a period in which she returns to this classic kind of look.
This has never been among my favorite pieces, but it seems to bear some passing artistic reference to Edmund Dulac. In 1911, during the “Golden Age of Illustration,” Dulac illustrated “Stories from Hans Christian Andersen” which included the story of the Ice Queen. In several of Guay’s pieces, we see a hazy, snowy effect. Here, it’s seen around the knees of this kneeling, somber, meditative maiden. This effect reminds me of Dulac’s piece, “The Snow Queen Flies Through the Winter’s Night” seen below:
Now, the low-cut back of the maiden’s dress seems to suggest a warmer clime, so maybe this is supposed to be either dreamy snow, or some kind of pollen or spore? This slender woman does seem to be at home in nature, but it’s still not one of the more powerful images from Guay’s work, in my opinion. What exactly is going on? She’s caressing a tree, bonding with it perhaps? It does convey that this woman is in tune with nature, but is she merely a tree hugger? How is she the chosen of nature?
Noble Steeds is the other dual-art card illustrated by Guay. Here we have two takes on the same pair of horses, one framed from afar in an Aspen grove of sorts, grazing, the other an action closeup of the horses rearing or running. I like the first better, I suppose, as the second seems too tightly cropped to me, the rearing horse seems to be cramped from having to rear up in such an enclosed space. I wonder what the cropping of the original was like.
Noble Steeds is an example of a phenomenon in older Magic cards, wherein an enchantment is misleading due to looking and feeling a lot like a creature. I still glance at this sometimes, thinking it’s a creature, and only realize my mistake when my eyes drift to the text box. All in all, Noble Steeds is primarily noteworthy for its illustrator, and is not among my favorites, even then.
A Short Aside on Multiple Artwork Cards
Alliances, sadly, was the last set released by Wizards of the Coast to include multiple card artwork for individual cards. This practice of alternate artwork lent a depth and a certain je n’sais qua to those earlier sets. I am a bit cynical about the official line from Wizards on the matter:
“…most players recognize cards through the artwork. With the enormous number of different cards available now, having many with alternate art can actually be a drawback, since you would have to memorize more images. … We just don’t want to be in a situation where the number of images a player needs to know to reasonably play the game gets out of hand.” -Elaine Chase, Magic R&D
This explanation seems awfully lacking in my estimation. Wizards does promotional reprints with alternate artwork all the time. New core sets often feature numerous examples of such reprints as well. Furthermore, as Chase admits, an average Magic player already recognizes an “enormous number” of different images, usually on the order of several thousand. Let’s face it, the number of images a player needs to know to “reasonably” play Magic is by definition out of hand. When you consider that Alliances had 55 cards with alternate art, and 144 unique, functionally different cards, this means roughly 38% of the cards had alternate artwork. How much difference does a marginal number of images make when you’re already memorizing thousands of them? Just under half of the cards in Beta have had recommissioned artwork at some point.
My theory is simply that Wizards can cut their costs for each given set by doing a single art commission for each card. Either way, I sure miss the multiple artwork, but I’ll settle for the promotional and textless versions we see nowadays, I suppose.
Sustaining Spirit, on the other hand, was an early favorite of mine. As a tribute to another of my favorite cards when I first came into Magic, Ali From Cairo, Sustaining Spirit caught my eye for its effect as well as its artwork. I love the pensive angel here. While some of Guay’s early cards clearly depict angels, many were spirits or guardians or merely Legends, as the subtype conventions had not been pinned down yet. This just adds charm to the older cards in my mind. Sustaining Spirit has been given errata to change the type from guardian to angel spirit.
This petite angel seems to be perched among the clouds, and could almost be a statue come to life, like some delicate, beautiful gargoyle. Fun fact: the phrase “guardian angel” has evoked this image in my mind for years, thanks to this art and the weird creature type wording. Maybe that’s just what they were thinking in the cutting room on this one.
Asmira is a beautiful image of an angelic protector. At least I thought so… turns out the errata here changed her type to Legendary Creature – Human Cleric. No matter, I will always consider Asmira an angel. The wings here don’t match the cloak well, and Asmira has flying. Come on, a flying cleric? I’ll admit that when the errata was issued I did finally see that what I saw as wings does match the color of the cloak, and there are portions of it that look more like flowing cloth than angel wings. But I digress.
Her embrace of the young child puts her in the role of protector. Her sun shaped halo and the patterns on her robes remind me of various pieces by Gutav Klimt, (like, for instance, “Julia I”). Guay got commissions for a Legend in both of her first two sets, and they were both among my favorites.
I really think Guay rose to the challenge of the particular style of Mirage. Here, we have an example of a style atypical to Guay, but very much in the feel of the set. This is a card, originally printed in Homelands, that would go on to have a number of high profile tournament appearances. Mark Tedin’s original has some intrigue to it, with the puzzle pieces falling out of a mage’s head, but the Seventh Edition version by Tristan Elwell is abysmal. Needless to say, my Homelands copies have seen no play, as I always favor the Guays. This is an example of a card which has artwork that’s not among my favorites, but which has grown on me due to appearing on a card likely to see play in a blue Guay themed deck, or odd decks from various formats over the years.
Vigilant Martyr gets my pick for best Guay card in Mirage. This is a beautiful piece, again with shades of Klimt in the patterned cloth. The piece succeeds in representing this protector, willing to die to defend another creature, or stop an enchantment from opposing magic. There’s so much going on in this frame, my eyes move effortlessly from one pleasing image to another. And finally, she’s again succeeded in helping define the unique feel of Mirage itself, with tribal themes and savannah setting.
Our first bit of gratuitous babe art, which would eventually become a hallmark of Guay by the time when Unglued came out in 2004. Most of the beautiful women portrayed by Guay are seen wearing flowing robes or dresses, but here we have one of the few bathing women of Magic. Nudity, nymphs, and merfolk were themes explored by many artists in the Golden Age of Illustration, the time in which many of Guay’s influences lived and worked. This attractive woman, and the lily-pad pond both evoke that period of illustration for me here.
My one complaint with this piece is that I find the woman’s hair to be too fluffy for having been drenched by a waterfall. I wish is fell straight down and just felt wetter.
Phantom Monster is a cool piece. Again we see the eerie snow effect, and what seems to me to be the shadow of the monster on the ground below as it flies above. It’s creepy and fitting to the card, the original flying hill giant. This is one of the few cards from Alpha which has been redone by Guay, though there are a few others, as we’ll see. This is also our first real taste for Guay’s penchant for phantasmal beings, which really comes to fruition in Judgment.
Donny Darko, anyone?
I have a thing for Faeries, and Guay does them well. Sea Sprite was the first, and there are a couple of interesting things going on here. The Faerie itself is aquatic feeling, with gossamer wings like seaweed. The flowing skirt, disappearing out of frame is also unusual for fae, but works well here.
Note the waves in this picture. I would love to know of Guay’s influences for this and other of her images featuring waves. I feel like several candidates exist in several of Dulac’s works, but also see resemblance to “The Great Wave,” a famous piece by the Edo period Japanese master Katsushika Hokusai. In this image, my suspicion of the Hokusai reference is heightened due to the Asian feel of the jumping fish, and their passing resemblance to yin and yang iconography. I want to stress that this is “the untrained eye” talking.
This is classic Guay, and classic Golden Age type illustration. Beams of light and the morose wanderer, with startled birds in the foreground belying the stillness which otherwise dominates the mood here. Framed in by trees, you get an almost claustrophobic sense from these foreboding woods, despite which, the maiden is still compelled to wander on. I’m a big fan of the original Wanderlust by Cornelius Brudi as well, and I only wish foil versions existed when Fifth Edition came around, so I could get a black-bordered version of this card. There’s always Sharpee!
Violence is uncommon in Guay’s pieces, but here we have the impression of acute pain and violence as the magic is ripped from the victim’s mind. I must admit, I’m not a huge fan of Mind Knives, but it gets the job done. Guay doesn’t use a lot of abstract painting, so I enjoy Mind Knives for that unusual aspect.
Cloak of Feathers simply screams Gustav Klimt to me. The woman’s fetal position and closed eyes give her flight a dreamlike quality, as does the strangeness of the window on the right, open to night time stars, contrasted with the trees to the left. You can’t tell which is inside, which is out, and on this peacock feather gown, so much like sheets pulled tight, the mystery takes flight. An odd but satisfying artistic experience, in my estimation.
Elven Cache is in the “Beautiful Hippy Gardener Elves” category of Guay’s work. I like most of these, but there is a personal bias there. The lingerie here definitely contributes to Guay’s early reputation for gratuitous babe art.
I’m a fan of Mobilize. Not only is this a very useful card in various elfball decks, the image is pretty sweet. You see some obviously nature-aligned adventurers (see the two deer to either side of their group) mobilizing in the woods. We’re so far back from their meeting, we don’t see much detail, but after all, this is a card describing a certain spell effect. Compare to the issue I brought up with Noble Steeds earlier. There is no mistaking this spell for a creature, and in fact, the scene describes the effect well. I like the use of a foreground tree as framing, both for giving depth to the image, and giving us some closer details to look upon.
This haunting, camouflaged elf is a very neat piece featuring the mystical snow effect, and showcasing Guay’s penchant for forests. Blending seamlessly into the sylvan scene is a great representation of forestwalk, making this art fit the card especially well.
Wood Elves is one of the most useful cards Guay has done, when it comes time to build guay_art.dec. This guy can fetch any forest, including Revised dual lands like tropical island and puts the land into play untapped and ready to use. I run Wood Elves in EDH decks alongside wirewood symbiote.
Guay has actually done two versions of Wood Elves, and we’ll see the second version later when we get to Exodus in part 2. This version’s two white haired elves look regal and fey. The flowing capes here are superbly rendered, amidst the mist.
Here we have an excellent angel, filling the frame. She’s beautiful, her wings are wide, her arms outstretched as she flies through the night sky. I like the flowing cloth, especially where her sleeve casts a shadow on her long dress. The stars behind her fit the description offered by the card’s name. I appreciate Guay’s angels for their classic look and feel. There’s no scantily clad, airbrushed skin, no silicon breast implants. These are beautiful, heavenly creatures, not tawdry sex objects of warrior princesses with wings. Renaissance era, classic angels. I’m not saying there isn’t a place within the wide fantasy setting of Magic for those Frank Frazetta style sex symbols and Roy Krenkel comic book heroines, or even the many examples of latex-clad Catwomen of Magic. I get that the current mass appeal is more along the lines of the X-Men than with Hans Christian Andersen. I’m simply thankful for those few artists, like Guay, who have contributed the classical ‘sensibility’ to our game.
To my mind, Weatherlight is the set in which Guay’s magic artwork solidifies into what I consider to be her classic style. It includes iconic images, and a very powerful card that saw lots of play and gave Guay’s work some early exposure.
Angelic Renewal is one of my favorite pieces by Guay. Such a gorgeous pose, the caring embrace of this woman’s guardian angel, saving her from her demise. The fine gowns, the curly hair, the wings, all done with such painterly grace. A wonderful piece.
This card was key to various winning tournament strategies, notably Zvi Mowshowitz’s Turboland.
The image here is among the classic, instantly-identifiable cards in the game for veteran players, with a beautiful female figure snuggling the back of a majestic knight as he kneels in prayer, holding his sword in the classic cross position before him. Set in a forest scene, we see leaves and shadows detailing the flowing cape and armor of the knight. Who is this woman? She’s nude, though her skin is covered in leafy images, suggesting that this may be an incarnation of Gaea responding to the knight’s prayers, conveying the namesake blessing upon him. That her hair seems to melt away into thin air suggests a similarly sylvan or spirit nature. This is a classic, high fantasy scene. Beautiful and serene.
Another blessing, this time from the Serra Angel of Magic lore. Another beautiful woman, clad in white, communing with nature. Her halo and proximity to the stag suggests she’s received the blessing, and is imbued with magic. I like the trees here, another Guay hallmark, giving depth the image.
This wraps up part one of the series. I hope you’ve enjoyed the first bit of the journey through Guay’s work. Join me next time as I peruse the works appearing in Tempest block and beyond. I will append updated links in the sections below as the subsequent parts are published.
Until we meet again!