2020 Magic Set Symbols in Review

ALK Alters
7 min readJan 12, 2021

Set symbols are a ubiquitous but rarely discussed part of Magic. Pretty much every one of the millions of printed cards have one, and very experienced players can instantly recognize a card’s printing from one. This is a *lot* of lifting for a symbol that is roughly 1 square centimeter large.

Magic set symbols, Alpha through Modern Masters 2015

To be successful, a Magic set symbol has to do the following:

1. Read cleanly at card size, again ~1 sq cm.

2. Convey some sort of information about the set it represents.

3. Differentiate itself well from all the other existing set symbols, especially from other recent sets.

This is a large task, and it’s a credit to the graphic designers at Wizards of the Coast that most of the set symbols throughout Magic’s history live up to those three criteria pretty well, especially with the explosion of unique products with unique set symbols since 2007 and the release of the first Duel Decks.

Some day some writer or video creator with more passion than sense will try to rank *every* Magic set symbol, but for today, let’s just see what 2020 had to offer!

Unique Set Symbols for Consideration:

· Theros Beyond Death

· Unsanctioned

· Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths

· Commander 2020

· Signature Spellbook: Chandra

· Core Set 2021

· JumpStart

· Double Masters

· Amonkhet Remastered

· Zendikar Rising

· Zendikar Rising Commander

· Zendikar Rising Expeditions

· Kaladesh Remastered

· Commander Legends

· Commander Collection: Green

Whew, that’s a lot. Let’s jump in with:

#15: Kaladesh Remastered

The Arena remastered sets have both followed the same philosophy for set symbol design, “mash the block’s symbols together”, and it’s not great in either case, but Kaladesh Remastered is the clear loser. The attachment of Aether Revolt’s “horns” to Kaladesh’s symbol feels uninspired at best and silly at worst, like Kaladesh had to get dressed up in a monster mask for its Arena (re)debut.

#14: Core Set 2021

The M10-era core set symbols are the “meh” of the set symbol world. Sure, they’re fine and functional and tell you exactly which core set you’ve got, but that’s about it. And moving to the new Beleren-inspired “M” from the new Magic logo versus the older one from the 1993 logo has really done it very few favors.

#13: Unsanctioned

Unsanctioned’s symbol suffers from the same “mash-em-up” philosophy as the Arena remastered sets. Here we’ve got the Unglued egg, the Unhinged horseshoe, and the Unstable wrench-with-acorn-socket (twice!) all put together, and it is… a lot. While Unsanctioned was created as a love letter to Un-sets, it could have created its own identity a little more by playing into the boxing motif that was on the packaging.

#12: Commander Collection: Green

Commander Collection was a new product this year, a small-pack premium release along the lines of From the Vault but featuring Commander staples, this time in everyone’s favorite color, green. The set symbol reflects this, with the green mana symbol and some embellishments on the side. This is the first time one of the mana symbols has appeared in a set symbol, and I’m torn on it. It feels rote and obvious, but on the other hand, this is a set literally named “Green” so what do I know?

#11: Commander 2020

Commander 2020 was the first experiment in now what is going to be an ongoing theme: having Commander releases that are tied to a “premier” set release and themed around it but not actually part of the set. In this case, new cards in Commander 2020 were themed around Ikoria, and the set symbol reflects it.

I think.

According to the Magic Wiki, the Commander 2020 symbol is “a shield with thorns”, which is both boring and indistinct. Not really much more to say about that.

#10: Zendikar Rising Commander

Zendkiar Rising, like Ikoria, had a Commander set themed around it that required a separate set symbol. To date, all of the Zendikar set symbols have revolved around the hedron, a distinct diamond shape that turned out to be an important plot point with Ugin, Nahiri, and the Eldrazi. Zendikar Rising’s symbol eschews this for… something? I think it’s related to the Skyclaves maybe, because it sort of looks like Maul of the Skyclaves? Anyways, it doesn’t do it for me.

#9: Double Masters

Masters sets have the hardest time coming up with distinct set symbols, as the theme of the set is mostly “cool reprints”. For example, I looked over the list of this year’s set symbols for this article and still forgot about Double Masters. The symbol for Double Masters doesn’t really break away from this- I guess it gets across the “double” theme and has the sort of curvy points that other Masters sets have had, but otherwise it is just there.

#8: Amonkhet Remastered

Okay, why does this one score so high when Kaladesh Remasered and Unsanctioned are so low? It’s because the Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation set symbols actually mash together in a really nice way, setting the scene for the God-Pharoh’s return to Amonkhet which happens in a single set on Arena.

#7: Zendikar Rising

Zendikar Rising’s symbol has a hedron! And that’s about it for this, as the Skyclave? Lithoform Engine?-inspired embellishments actually take away from the symbol overall, as they squish the hedron and make the symbol more square, but the continuity with the hedron is enough for me.

#6: Zendikar Rising Expeditions

Honestly I forgot that this existed until researching for this article, and I own a number of these cards! The Expeditions symbol avoids the trap of the Zendikar Rising symbol by making the hedron more of it’s classic oblong shape, and the inner design helps sell a sense of ‘premium’ness.

#5: JumpStart

JumpStart is a weird one for me. It’s only the third set symbol in Magic’s 27+ year existence to feature a physical depiction of the actual Magic card (after Eighth and Ninth Editions), which is a weird fourth-wall breaking moment for me. On the other hand, I don’t know how else you would depict the central conceit of the set, mashing together two packs of 20 cards into a random sealed deck, and the symbol explains that cleanly.

#4: Signature Spellbook: Chandra

Chandra follows the Jace and Gideon spellbooks by having a book motif as part of the symbol, this time with a flame in the middle. More than the other two, this embellishment makes a clear statement of which planeswalker this set is affiliated with.

#3: Commander Legends

Commander Legends plays like a love letter to the concept of Commander, and the set symbol reflects that. Its two elements are the legendary crown that was introduced in Dominaria and a column reminiscent of the one from Legends, the set that introduced Legendary Creatures and an inspiration for this set. The big downfall of this symbol is the (relatively) giant white bar running between these two and pulling them together into one piece: I don’t love this much uninterrupted white space being used in a set symbol, and it knocks Commander Legends down to third for the year.

#2: Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths

Ikoria’s set symbol feels like a throwback to the older days of Magic set symbols, where there was less world-specific iconography and more general images that play at the mood or feeling of the world. In this case, the monster eye sells what the set is supposed to be about (read: monsters). I particularly like the cats-eye inspired shape of the iris and the horn-esque embellishments at the top that really sell the monsterism.

#1: Theros Beyond Death

The original Theros block’s symbols were a little meh, so the symbol on our return to Theros was a welcome surprise. The Returned mask is nicely rendered here even at its tiny size and plays well with the graveyard theme and underworld setting of the set. It’s unique within the worldbuilding of Magic, ties well with the story of the set, and is just a nice little icon.



ALK Alters

ALK Alters makes pretty Magic: the Gathering card alters on Twitter (@altersalk) and writes pretty good words about Magic: the Gathering he hopes. He/him.