One of the biggest shakeups to Magic the Gathering's identity in recent years was the introduction of 'Showcase Frames'. Debuting in 2019's Throne of Eldraine as part of a push to make opening booster packs more engaging, showcase frames are unique alternate art styles that tie together some theme of the set, and are (usually) included in every kind of booster pack.
Sometimes it's a mechanical connection, sometimes it's more to do with the story, and sometimes it's to do with the development of the set. No matter what the connection, showcase frames are always interesting as they let Magic's artists play around with the usual presentation of cards and help give that set its own identity in the deluge of that year's releases. That being said, some are definitely better than others, and so here is every Showcase frame since Throne of Eldraine, ranked.
Because this list is only listing frames identified by Wizards of the Coast as being 'Showcase' frames, there are a few big omissions here. The biggest ones are Strixhaven: School of Mage's Mystical Archive and Time Spiral Remastered's Timeshifted cards. While both were collections of alternate frames that tied together the theme of their sets, they differed from showcase frames in that they featured reprints of cards not included in the wider set.
Also missing are the Godzilla and Dracula cards from Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths and Innistrad: Crimson Vow respectively. Although these really should be considered showcase frames, Wizards doesn't treat them as such, and so they're not here.
Core Set 2021 – Signature Spellbook Frame
Core sets are made to be approachable to newcomers, with lower mechanical complexity and much more frequent reminder text to explain what each keyword does. For some reason, though, that simplicity also translated to the set's Showcase frames, which are borderline boring.
The theme for these showcase cards were the set's Planeswalkers, and their 'signature spells'. Liliana, Chandra, Garruk, Teferi, and newcomer Basri Ket each represent one of the five colours (black, red, green, blue, and white respectively), and their frames are modified to fit their themes. Teferi's is whispy to show his time-manipulating skills, Chandra's are singed for her pyromancy, Garruk's have plants growing in the background, and so on.
The frames had to not change the readability of the cards too much – after all, newcomers need to know which bits of text they need to read – but it worked around that by plastering gaudy patterns on top. It just doesn't look that good – particularly Liliana's purple, ghoulish frame and whatever Basri's got going on.
Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms – Classic Rulebook Frame
As a celebration of all things Dungeons & Dragons, one of Adventures in the Forgotten Realms' two showcase styles saw iconic creatures given art reminiscient of the original rulebook. Offset against solid colours to match the card's colour identity, these sketchy, beige creatures are a decent callback to a memorable part of D&D's history.
They're just also not that exciting; not in their lack of colour, but in which creatures were chosen for it. There are a few cool inclusions, like many of the set's Legendary creatures that help give a Commander deck a bit of extra bling. But there are also a lot of underwhelming, common-rarity creatures filling it up – was anyone asking for a showcase Bulette, Pixie Guide, or Celestial Unicorn?
Double Masters – Full-art Box Toppers
Double Masters was an ultra-luxury set that featured double the number of rare cards to a normal pack, and its showcase style is, in comparison, pretty tame: alternate full-art box toppers.
The cards given the treatment are incredible, full of staples like Doubling Season, Exploration, Atraxa Praetors' Voice, Blood Moon, and Toxic Deluge, and the art is varied but mostly fantastic. Some of the most valuable cards not on the reserved list are among the box toppers, making finding a few a real treat.
The reason Double Masters is so low down here is that they were never found in standard booster packs, which goes against the spirit of showcase frames. These cards were only available in two places: in non-foil as buy-a-box promos for those who bought an entire booster box, and in foil in the $100+ VIP Edition booster pack. The whole point of showcase frames is that they make opening booster packs more fun, but they weren't included in the already more expensive basic Double Masters boosters.
Modern Horizons 2 – Retro Frame
Although Time Spiral Remastered's Timeshifted cards aren't considered showcase frames, Modern Horizons 2's visually identical retro frames are.
Cards from both Modern Horizons 2 and the first Modern Horizons are included in this style, which puts them onto the original Magic card frame. For veterans of the game, they're a cool nostalgic point, and the inclusion of the five fetch lands of the set was a fantastic decision. They also received etched foil versions in some booster packs, which looked really nice.
However, we'd just seen retro frames only a few months earlier, making their comeback feel less special. Timeshifted cards were one of the best things about Time Spiral Remastered, but in Modern Horizons 2, they didn't make a whole lot of thematic sense. It felt almost pandering, made worse by the fact Modern Horizons 2 already has another showcase frame unique to it. This was the set where we hit peak showcase saturation.
Zendikar Rising Expeditions – Hedron Frame
Continuing Wizards' trend of labelling some things showcases and not other, similar things, Zendikar Rising's buy-a-box promos, Expeditions, got their own unique 'Hedron' frame, where the sides of the cards were full of the Zendikar plane's iconic stone Hedrons.
Although every card in this style is a land, there are some incredible lands here that make it worthwhile. All ten of the fetch lands were the highlight, but also stuff like the allied-colour bond lands (the enemy-colour ones wouldn't be released until Commander Legends later that year), Wasteland, Strip Mine, and Valakut the Molten Pinnacle.
The only problem with these is that the frame feels too contrasting with the gorgeous art on them. Had these just been full-art lands showcasing those incredible Zendikar vistas, these would've been way up the top of the list. As it is, the Hedrons feel almost cartoon-y in comparison, and it doesn't quite work as a whole piece.
Innistrad: Crimson Vow – Fang Frame
The last showcase frame of 2021, Fang frames were given to most of the vampires of Innistrad: Crimson Vow. Combining decadence and ferocity, their smooth curves and sharp points were a really nice, and pretty subtle, way to cap off the year.
The main criticism of these frames isn't with the actual frame itself, it's with the alternate art paired with them: a lot of them are dark and muddy. Cards like Blood Petal Celebramt Olivia's Attendants, Dominating Vampire, Welcoming Vampire, and Markov Purifier tend to blur together into one mass of brown and grey, especially when compared to standouts from the style like Cemetery Gatekeeper, Odric Blood Cursed, and Runo Stromkirk.
Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and Innistrad: Crimson Vow – Eternal Night Frame
To tie together 2021's two visits to Innistrad, Midnight Hunt and Crimson Vow shared the Eternal Night frame. Referencing the story, where the sun stopped rising on Innistrad, this frame features lands and legendary creatures in a high-contrast monochromatic style. Beautiful and offputting in equal measure, they swung from the more comic book-y cards like Torrens Fist of the Angels and Jerren Corrupted Bishop to almost wood carving-feeling ones like Sigarda Champion of Light and Halana and Alena, Partners.
The real stars of this showcase frame, though, are the full-art lands rendered in the same style. Full-art lands in booster packs are always nice, and with these showing off the atmospheric and eerie scenes of Innistrad, they quickly became a fan favourite.
Adventures in the Forgotten Realms – Module Lands
Speaking of lands, the second showcase frame of Dungeons & Dragons: Adventure in the Forgotten Realms was a lot more successful than the rulebook sketches. These were a selection of lands (all but one of them debuting in the set) that were reimagined in the same style as classic Dungeons & Dragons module covers.
The art is incredible, doing an amazing job of evoking those old late '70s, early '80s vibes (in particular, Hive of the Eye Tyrant and Den of the Bugbear are utterly fantastic). It was also nice to see the humble Evolving Wilds get a new art treatment. These weren't everybody's cup of tea, thanks to the bold colours, but they were always a treat to open.
Theros: Beyond Death – Constellations Frame
At first glance, Theros: Beyond Death's showcase frames are fine. Serviceable. Gods and demigods of the set are rendered in galaxies and constellations to reflect the Nyx, the mysterious realm of the gods. Theros has a very specific aesthetic, and these fit well within that.
Where the Constellation frames go from good to great are the basic lands, which are some of the best full-art lands ever released for Magic. While some didn't like the fourth-wall-breaking aspect of having the mana icons appear so prominently on them, their vivid colours and swirling icon patterns make them not only gorgeous but are also an incredibly accessible basic land that gives all the information other players would need from a distance.
Kaldheim – Viking Frame
Looking at scans of the Kaldheim Viking frame doesn't do the final, printed card any justice at all. Designed by senior graphic designer James Arnold, these are inspired by a mashup of authentic carved wooden Viking ships, and the death metal theme that permeates through the set. Bold and aggressive, but with a hint of history to them, they add an ornate feeling to the card without throwing too much stuff on them to obfuscate the game elements.
The problem is they don't look as good digitally as they do on paper. Maybe it's the smaller size of a physical card, or the way the varnished surface of the card bounces light off of it, but in digital it looks almost too much in comparison. This is even more true when you look at a foil card – the showcase Firja, Judge of Valor almost looks like it's covered in a layer of oil (which, considering the appearance of the Phyrexian Vorinclex in the set, is fitting).
Innistrad: Midnight Hunt – Equinox Frame
There are a lot of similarities between Innistrad: Midnight Hunt's Equinox frame and Kaldheim's Viking. Both are inspired by folk art of their respective influences (Norse mythology and Eastern European folklore respectively), and have a very natural, earthy feeling to them. The Equinox frame dumps the death metal theme of Kaldheim, though, in exchange for the culty, witch-y feel of Midnight Hunt.
The Equinox frame is only given to two creature types that typify the set's story: werewolves and warlocks. The art's a lot clearer than Kaldheim's more brutal style too, with some verging more into comic book styling than anything else. Bold colours paired with a limited colour pallet, and neat touches like the sun and the moon ornaments in the corners of the werewolf cards make it a surprisingly effective style.
Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths – Comic Book Frame
Every Magic set takes some influence from pop culture, but very few take it to the extent of the monster movie-themed Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths. Featuring thinly-veiled references to things like King Kong, Godzilla, and even Sharknado, it's no surprise this is the set where we got full, comic-inspired showcase cards.
The connecting theme for these cards were the set's Mutation mechanic and its three-colours-matters design, meaning mutating creatures like Auspicious Starrix, Shoreshark Pouncer, Archipelagore and Migratory Greathorn were given full-art printings with thick, dark line art and vivid colours. We also got the five-card cycle of Triomes, powerful lands that can tap for three different colours and give a great stylised look at the environments of Ikoria. Some work better than others (Pouncing Shoreshark and Brokkos, Apex of Forever being obvious high points), but they're all beautiful cards to highlight the set's best mechanic.
Modern Horizons 2 – Sketch Frame
While most other frames are connected through a mechanical or thematic theme, Modern Horizons 2 tried something really different and looked at the development of the set itself for inspiration. The Sketch frame featured cards debuting in Modern Horizons 2 and showed not only the work-in-progress art for the card, but also the description given by the art director when commissioning the piece.
It's fascinating to see each artist's differing approach to the process, ranging from detailed sketched in Dermotaxi, Thought Monitor and Late to Dinner, to more abstract colour explorations on Serra's Emissary, Murktide Regent, Magus of the Bridge or Garth One-Eye. The most interesting ones are the sketches that were obviously taken very early on, like Road//Ruin, Urza's Saga, Dress Down, and Fractured Sanity, which are effectively nothing but doodles.
It's not often we're given this much of a look behind the scenes of Magic, and if there's any frame that should come back in future sets, it's definitely this one.
Zendikar Rising – Travel Poster Frame
The showcase style of the actual Zendikar Rising set were these colourful cards inspired by old travel posters. These are a much better use of the hedron theme than the Expeditions cards, thanks to the diamond shape of the hedron itself serving as the frame for the incredibly vivid art that is, at times, almost psychedelic.
The showcase cards focused on the landfall mechanic and included some of the set's heavy hitters like Scute Swarm, Ruin Crab, Valakut Exploration, Felidar Retreat, and Omnath Locus of Creation. Using travel posters as the inspiration for an adventure-themed set like Zendikar Rising was a great choice, but then focusing it on the mechanic that most cares about getting new lands out is a very nice thematic touch.
Throne of Eldraine – Storybook Frame
It was the first showcase frame, and what a way to introduce the concept to the world. Throne of Eldraine was a set based on fairy tales, and was full of callbacks to things like Little Red Riding Hood, the Little Mermaid, and Hansel and Gretel. It also introduced the 'Adventure' mechanic, where a spell could be cast and placed into exile, allowing you to re-cast the other half of the card later on, and it's here where Throne of Eldraine's Storybook frame was used.
The Storybook style turned all the set's cards with Adventure into Art Nouveau books, with each page being one of the different ways the card could be cast. Not only were the frames an appealing combination of beige and the card's colour identity, but the art itself was also often delicate and had an almost aged feel to it.
These are the best showcase frame because it's a perfect marriage of mechanical needs and thematic importance. Adventure cards need their text split into two columns, one for the Adventure spell and the other for the normal creature's abilities. Putting those two columns onto different pages of a weathered old book was a stroke of genius, and that was then added to by having the art feel like it's pouring out of the book, consistent with the theme of fairy tales coming to life that defines Eldraine as a setting.
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