What’s the Coolest Dark Ritual in Magic?

Inspiration for your next album cover.

What’s Dark Ritual? It’s a three-for-one sale that makes black spells go brrr.

#11: Justin Hampton’s Dark Ritual

Dark Ritual

Ice Age | Common

Dark Ritual - Ice Age - magic

Artistically, I’m not a fan of this piece. It relies really heavily on outlining to define forms, rather than more subtle methods like value and texture.

Outlining flattens forms, which, depending on style goals, isn’t always bad. In this case it isn’t great, because it’s creating a busy sort of chaos where all these flat-looking elements try to exist in the same space, even though the image is simultaneously trying to create depth with that henge in the background. Heavy lines on the face and horns of the central figure cluster with lines on the clothes and tangle further with lines around the stones. The clutter is further compounded when the art is reduced to card size, and all those lines get further compressed and confused.

Narratively, my problem with this is more personal, and that’s the implication that these guys are druids and that what they are doing is a “dark ritual” or a bad, evil thing. Pagan religions have been portrayed like this for decades, and those who follow those faiths have been fighting mainstream misconceptions for just as long. Using pagan trappings like this is, in my opinion, a lazy and uninformed tack. The infinite creative space of fantasy is available, so why literally demonize an ancient religion that is still being practiced by many people today?

#10: Rebecca Guay’s Dark Ritual

Dark Ritual

Mercadian Masques | Common

Dark Ritual - Mercadian Masques - magic

This has a very storybook feel to it. Some interesting effects are going on with the atmospheric clouds and the (much more limited) use of line in the big eye.

It does feel a little weird though. The figures and action of the image are really tiny compared to the size of the frame of view. This would make more sense if their surroundings were highly specified for the purpose of generating a sense of place and time, but instead the surroundings are nondescript. The viewer is really far removed from the action, and I am not sure for what purpose. Separation from the action lowers the stakes for the viewer. Whatever they’re doing doesn’t seem so important since we’re so far from it.

I also don’t know that the design shapes are working for the tone of the card. Although I really like the big billows and repeated spirals in the eye and in the robes, they don’t say “dark and sinister” to me. Their magic circle has little yellow triangle pips that look like a shining sun. This art might just be cuter than intended.

#9: John Coulthart’s Dark Ritual

Dark Ritual

Mirage | Common

Dark Ritual - Mirage - magic

This piece is all about the values, the relationship of light and dark, which looks amazing in the dark frame of a black card. The restricted color palette plays this up even further, leaving the shadows and highlights of the image to do the heavy lifting when it comes to definition of shapes.

Color is used here to set a temperature, which is quite warm with sienna and gold. I love that the artist made this choice, since we don’t see warm cards in black as often, and it sets this composition apart. Warm palettes are usually welcoming, comforting, but here we see that in the right hands, they can create an ominous tone just as effectively as the violets and teals often seen in black.

My main point of critique would be the drapery on the figures. The segments of cloth are folded with such regularity, they appear as a pattern more than the way fabric would naturally drape over a body. The repetition of deep fabric folds is echoed in the tendrils of smoke, filling this piece with a lot of very busy vertical stripes that are nearly overwhelming to look at.

Clothing is (at least in my opinion) one of the most challenging elements to capture convincingly on a two-dimensional surface. For a great example of one way to do it, check out this painting by John Singer Sargent, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer

He hasn’t fallen into the trap of trying to draw out every single detail in the fabric. Rather counterintuitively, a handful of brushstrokes are used to say a lot more than the painstaking folds we see in this Dark Ritual.

Lady Agnew, folds highlighted

The few folds Sargent has bothered with are of structural importance, following the contours of the body underneath, and work to define form. The folds follow the body, not the other way around, and that’s why they don’t fall in a predictable pattern.

#8: Sandra Everingham’s Dark Ritual

Dark Ritual

Beta Edition | Common

Dark Ritual - Beta Edition - magic

Market Price: $242.40

A lot of older Magic art is done in this style, with what looks like chalk pastel as a medium. This is a really challenging medium to use when it comes to rendering believable textures, which is why a lot of these images have this “peach fuzz” feeling where everything (stone, cloth, fire) sort of shares the same surface quality.

To illustrate what I mean when I talk about diversity or believability of textures, take a look at this self-portrait of German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer.

Self-Portrait by Albrecht Dürer

In the way Dürer has painted the cloth, the skin, the dang fur on his coat, it’s clear this guy was fascinated by texture and labored to create its illusion on the flat surface. That’s what this Dark Ritual couldn’t quite capture.

However, this illustration is rescued by its values. The super dark shadows and bright highlights thrown by the flames are compelling even without much variety in the surfaces, and it’s great that the artist wasn’t afraid to really push the contrast for this card.

#7: Mark Hyzer’s Dark Ritual

Dark Ritual

Judge Promos | Rare

Dark Ritual - Judge Promos - magic

Market Price: $161.56

I think this is a bat, but it sort of resembles a bug. The textures are really interesting and provide a lot of variety for the eye. The creature’s skin looks convincingly leathery, and the smoke pouring out of it billows and roils like a storm cloud.

The artist has used a wide range of colors on this black card that combine to make a deceptively complex palette. The predominant balance is a complementary yellow and violet scheme, but there are also some very interesting greens and reds that create a temperature shift and generate further interest.

The “ritual” element is a bit lacking. The pictured action could as easily be the natural progression of decay after a death as it could be a mana-generating dark bargain. What I mean is, there’s nothing besides the name of the card to let us know what’s going on here. The image alone doesn’t depict something that I’d immediately know as “ritualistic.”

#6: Ken Meyer Jr.’s Dark Ritual

Dark Ritual

Tempest | Common

Dark Ritual - Tempest - magic

Contrast this one against Rebecca Guay’s above, and you should be able to feel the difference this more effective framing makes. I don’t know about you, but this looming guy right in my face activates my fight or flight response. This close proximity to the viewer puts you right in the action (whether you want to be there or not). Assuming a Dark Ritual requires a sacrifice, the viewer, looking up at this guy staring at you, is the sacrifice in the narrative of this art piece. Talk about raising the stakes.

This image is all about the contrast. The monochrome color palette does one thing only: defines the temperature as cold. Everything else, the volume of forms, mood, and tone, are all achieved through the artist’s use of contrast. Sharp, bold shadows and searing highlights create drama. The texture on the face presents an opposition to the ephemeral magic effects bubbling from the hand, and keeps the viewer’s interest.

#5: Rien’s Dark Ritual

Dark Ritual

Masters 25 | Common

Dark Ritual - Masters 25 - magic

This is a really pleasing image to look at. The off-center composition creates interest even with fairly static action, and the soft watercolor texture is immaculate.

I like that this version of Dark Ritual has gone in a completely different direction with the tone of the image. There’s no sudden surge of power here, instead it’s more contemplative. The creep of darkness around the figure is more insidious. I could almost believe this person is battling internal demons, and that the “dark ritual” is simply them giving in. Maybe this is the version you play as a last resort.

#4: Clint Langley’s Dark Ritual

Dark Ritual

Masters 25 | Common

Dark Ritual - Masters 25 - magic

Another warm palette in black, but this one is dialed all the way up to boiling. That red is searing. It’s really interesting how the black and red elements intertwine and almost create letterforms in the image. It reminds me a lot of metal band logos and tempts me to stare into it for a long time, trying to decipher a hidden meaning.

There’s no way this evil wizard is Dark Ritual-ing in silence either, I 100% believe there’s a sick riff going on in the background.

#3: Richard Wright’s Dark Ritual

Dark Ritual

Masterpiece Series: Amonkhet Invocations | Mythic

Dark Ritual - Masterpiece Series: Amonkhet Invocations - magic

Market Price: $99.45

Talk about building a sense of place. The entire series of Amonkhet masterpieces are incredibly successful at defining a setting. I won’t lie: I love these cards. I don’t even care that the “hieroglyphic” typeface is somewhat hard to read, it’s worth it for the atmosphere. And this image is definitely atmospheric. Layers of atmospheric perspective build as buildings fade away into distance, developing a sense of scale. The balance of light and darkness is highly dramatic, placing the scene squarely at the precipitous time of sunrise and heightening the sense of ceremony.

There are figures lined up in a ritualistic manner along the center line of the scene, but they are too small and dark to see clearly. If I have any critique, it’s that the “ritual” itself isn’t very clear in the action of the illustration. There is some reliance here on the context of Amonkhet; you have to know a bit of the set’s storyline to know that this is a ritual.

#2: Robbie Trevino’s Dark Ritual

Dark Ritual

Masters 25 | Common

Dark Ritual - Masters 25 - magic

I’ve talked about the strength of triangular composition a lot of times before now, but this is probably the most obvious example of it I’ve seen in card art. It’s a perfectly centered symmetrical triangle, the two hands and the point of the hood (pointed to further enhance the triangle). It also leans really heavily on the basic principle of creating a focal point through contrast. A really bright thing next to a really dark thing draws the eye like a magnet, something the artist has used three times here to make his triangle points even sharper. To add a third layer of direction, he has even gone so far as to circle each point, as if to say “RIGHT HERE, LOOK AT THIS.”

MTG Dark Ritual by Robbie Trevino, centered triangle

It’s almost too successful, because the third hand in the middle of the frame is easy to miss in the neverending excitement of TRIANGLES.

This is also a really, really good example of how to use line effectively in composition. There is a variety of line weights here used very intentionally to create texture and atmosphere.

MTG Dark Ritual by Robbie Trevino, line weight comparison

Contrast it to the evil druids in spot number 11 up top, and you should be able to see how the line use in that piece is unsuccessful by comparison. Here we see thick, chunky outlines in some places, defining forms, and thin, wispy lines suggesting smoke in others. The variation in line weight is masterful in this piece.

#1: Tom Fleming’s Dark Ritual

Dark Ritual

Urza’s Saga | Common

Dark Ritual - Urza's Saga - magic

I enjoy this piece because it says a lot without showing everything—the viewer is left to read between the lines to understand the story. Allowing the viewer to interpret indirect meaning is flattering to their intelligence. It’s like the difference between a From Soft game and something that spoon feeds you all the information right away.

This is the quiet moment after the ritualist’s dark bargain, the pause between the evil deed and the surge of power. I love this moment that makes you think “Was it worth it? Do the ends justify the means?” It’s psychologically interesting, a unique take on this card to leave the viewer for a moment with the cold evidence of what they’ve done. Phyrexia plays so well with this sinister vibe, it’s absolutely goosebump worthy.

In addition to all that, this artwork really reminds me of the Death of Marat, by Jacques-Louis David.

Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David

Parallels exist in the gesture of the hand, limp over the edge, the small drips of blood implying a moment of heated violence just passed, even in the very well rendered cloth drapery which seems almost incongruous with the rest of this illustration. What’s more: as the Phyrexians’ primary interests are to invade and conquer, they are exactly the kind of force a rebellious human-rights advocate like Marat would oppose.

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