When Magic: The Gathering Art Went From Royalty-Based To Flat-Fee

Island illus. by Mark Pool

Believe it or not, there was a time in Magic: The Gathering history when artists actually earned royalties for the artwork they made for the game.

Now, for the first few editions, this wasn't a big deal. And most cards had the same art returning with each new printing.

However, as Magic took off in the mid-90s, the royalty system began costing Wizards of the Coast more and more.

It became a problem, and Magic's growing popularity in other countries only cemented this with more and more cards being printed costing more and more.

While it seemed cheap at the time to have a royalty system, it was now costing the company dearly. WotC never said how much it was costing in total, but it was obviously becoming more than what a flat fee cost would run the company long term.

So, in 1997, with the Fifth Edition coming up, the company decided to do a big redesign with the cards. There was a huge back and forth over if cards should be black bordered or white bordered, because there is a whole thing over that kind of decision. Even R&D went back and forth on this.

At one point there were plans for a limited number of black bordered cards with mostly white, and vice versa. Some designers were worried about what collectors and players would think, while others wanted it to be more uniform. But, in the end, white borders won out.

It would all be white borders for one. But also, rather than the same three artworks for each colored land, all new land art would be included in, amounting to a total of four new ones per color. And, with new artwork coming for each edition, as well as reusing the same art because they own it, WotC saw a way to cut back significantly on costs when it comes to MTG artwork.

Because, oh yeah, they went all flat fee. Fifth Edition was the first to have no royalty based cards, with the set's land artwork being able to come back again and again. Since then, cards have followed the changes made by the fifth edition and lands continue to have a long history of rotation, with very few of the pre-Fifth Edition lands not really coming back up again very often at all. And that's all thanks to the whole royalty situation.

And while new basic lands and other card designs continuing on to this day, the first big change came about simply because WotC's bottom line pointed out that some artists were getting paid a bit too much for their work.

So, yeah, money. Not much of a surprise in the end, really.

Evan Symon

Evan Symon is a graduate of The University of Akron and has been a working journalist ever since with works published by Cracked, GeekNifty, the Pasadena Independent, California Globe, and, of course, Magic Untapped.