One of old-school Magic's most famous faces
Benalish Hero Art
One of old-school Magic's most famous faces
Public demand for original paintings from Magic: The Gathering has exploded since the early 2000s, creating a well-established and competitive market. As the game’s subculture has matured, the weight of nostalgia has built up around famous and powerful cards from years past.
You can look at Magic as one of the world’s most powerful and extensive networks for promoting original art. Any card art printed today will become recognizable to tens of millions of players worldwide!
What’s more, associating the art with game pieces leads players to develop deep emotional attachments to those images. This explains why the most important factor in valuing Magic artwork is not the artist or even aesthetics, but the preeminence of its card within Magic subculture.
Benalish Hero is a perfect example of the kind of art the community is most interested in: an iconic era-defining creature from Magic’s very first printing (Limited Edition Alpha), featuring bold, memorable art.
Other paintings from that historic Alpha set are rarely seen on the market; the majority change hands in private deals. Mythic Markets is extremely proud to be able to offer the broader community an opportunity to invest in Alpha art.
Striking, noble, boldly awaiting duty’s call. The iconic Douglas Shuler artwork for Benalish Hero defined one of Magic: The Gathering’s five colors for years in the 1990s. The painting’s distinctive strengths and flaws embody Magic as it was at its debut, and hint at the qualities which made the card game an instant success.
Magic: The Gathering has become a pillar of fantasy and gaming culture, standing alongside Dungeons & Dragons as a household name and globally recognized phenomenon. An instant hit upon its release in 1993, Magic managed to maintain that momentum essentially unbroken over the next few decades, selling tens of billions of cards worldwide.
Clearly, there was something exceptional about early MTG beyond the fundamental idea of a competitive trading card game that let it capture the market so completely. There are an impressive number of players from 1993 who are still proudly involved in Magic today.
But even they might not immediately single out the artwork on the cards as being that secret weapon! Painted mostly by fresh art school grads with limited interest in Magic’s fantastical subject matter, Alpha art like Benalish Hero is worlds away from the technically-polished house style the game would cultivate in the 21st century.
Nevertheless, these Alpha images remain central to a subculture of 35 million Magic players - even the generations who were born well after the Alpha set left circulation! Even more than the cards they were printed on, these paintings represent the building blocks of fantasy - the dragon, the wizard, the angel, the zombie, the hero!
When a Shivan Dragon and a Sengir Vampire clash on the tabletop, that artwork tells a story far more exciting and captivating than one faceless game piece taking another. Alpha artwork was the vanguard which drew you into the engaging but complex card game beneath.
Douglas Shuler’s Benalish Hero is one of the most definitive artworks of the game’s historic early-’90s era. As the protagonists in Magic’s tabletop theater, these stoic soldiers could be summoned from the very first turn, and in multiples they could team up to slay even the biggest Dragons or Elementals, thanks to their “Banding” ability. This strength-in-numbers strategy was effective and popular, becoming the signature gameplan of white-mana decks for the next 25 years!
Benalish Hero can be rightfully claimed the most influential white card in Alpha, alongside Shuler’s other famous creation Serra Angel. And yet, publisher Wizards of the Coast allowed the card to go out of print in 1997 - while Serra Angel, Shivan Dragon and many others have been re-released continuously to this day.
Even Douglas Shuler himself, responsible for over 120 of the game’s most famous artworks from the ‘90s, was cut from WotC’s stable of artists after 2005. As the Magic brand grew, they became more interested in refining a consistent aesthetic - and the iconic Benalish Hero didn’t fit the mold.
Digitally-produced paintings began to swiftly take over as the norm in gaming products, and Shuler’s work in particular was an easy target for comparisons. Detractors railed against the blocky shading and anatomy; flat, empty backgrounds looked out of place compared to the ambitious compositions on new cards like Patron of the Orochi or Warp World. The same blind push for graphical fidelity which was running through the video game industry of the day left the bright, cartoonish styles of artists like Shuler behind.
But just as the initial wonderment around photorealistic 3D graphics has given way to a healthy appreciation for “retro” animation styles, so has a more mature Magic audience steadily grown to admire some of the game’s forgotten artists. Even critics with a preference for technical complexity have recognized the economical effectiveness with which Benalish Hero and Shuler’s other paintings convey classic fantasy tropes.
Making a great elevator pitch can be harder than giving a half-hour presentation - and as an unknown indie game trying to establish itself in a crowded market, Magic needed pieces like Benalish Hero to be the former. In modern-day interviews, Shuler explains the constraints and goals his Alpha artwork was painted under:
“When we were first assigned images, we were working very small and were instructed that the final art would be an inch or two at most.
We were encouraged to keep the backgrounds plain, the colors bold, and the characters simple. I made a conscious choice to use high contrast in my art so that the characters would 'pop', which is where Serra Angel, Icy Manipulator, and many others came from - the need to craft art that would show at a very tiny size.”
Considering the finite quality of printing available at the game’s inception, many of Shuler’s choices make sense. A lifelong fan of fantasy himself, Shuler used exaggerated and unique silhouettes with bold colors and shading to lay out the basic archetypes of the genre.
Even those simple flat backgrounds served to reinforce Magic’s core concept of a "color pie". Lay out the art for Benalish Hero alongside Shuler’s Northern Paladin, and the similar tones make clear their common alignment as white creatures!
Shuler’s later work shows that he was artistically capable of more complex and technical paintings. His final contribution to Magic, shown on the card Greater Good, blends perfectly with the game’s finely-detailed modern style. But the artist is not so sure that the benefits of that style outweigh the personal flair and simple effectiveness of those famous Alpha artworks.
“As the sets went on, artists were increasingly instructed to work in details. More and more details. It took longer to make each piece and the restrictions were tighter. I know Wizards was trying to achieve a more consistent look with a more high-art look, but at the cost of certain freedoms from the artists.
What I think I find the most striking is how much some of the simpler images resonate to this day, with players commenting at almost every show, ‘This art was my childhood’. Funny thing is, I feel the same way about the things I grew up with, so I can identify with the feeling.
Oddly, I think the simpler images are the ones that gather the strongest responses.”
And as a burgeoning collector’s market has emerged around original Magic paintings in the last decade, the auction records seem to vindicate Shuler’s belief. Paintings from Alpha far less iconic than the famous Benalish Hero have been valued highly as pieces of the game’s historic record - and the original canvas for Shuler’s Serra Angel, for decades the mascot of MTG, is regarded as one of its holy grails.
Holding huge sentimental value to millions of players and ex-players, the 295 paintings which illustrated Magic’s first print run are now a very limited and sought-after commodity, rarely available on the open market. Our acquisition of Shuler’s original painting of the Benalish Hero - whose legacy can be seen in modern staples like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and History of Benalia - is a remarkable opportunity for fans of the game to own one of the foundational characters who paved the way for Magic’s success.
Douglas Shuler painted Benalish Hero in 1993. In 2011, he sold it to Vintage Magic. Benalish Hero's previous owner, businessman and prolific fantasy art collector J.P., acquired it in 2013. It most recently joined the Mythic Markets collection in June 2020.